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Cardinal Pell prepares for appeal hearing

Cardinal Pell, the press and the police (Getty)

The cardinal was convicted of five charges of child sexual abuse in December

Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction for sexual abuse of minors will be heard by the Australian state of Victoria’s supreme court on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

In December 2018, Pell was convicted of five charges of child sexual abuse and was sentenced to six years in prison in March. Pell’s conviction was for sexual abuse against two choirboys in 1996, during the time he served as Archbishop of Melbourne.

Pell’s defense lawyers have appealed the conviction on three separate grounds.

The first claims that the jury could not have unanimously decided “beyond reasonable doubt” due to the testimony of 20 witnesses that gave “unchallenged exculpatory evidence” during Pell’s trial.  If the three-judge panel sides with Pell on this appeal, it would result in his conviction being overturned and his immediate release from custody.

The second ground of appeal argues that the defense lawyers’ video presentation, which was excluded by the trial judge, Peter Kidd, would have shown the jury the victim’s testimony was not credible.

The third ground is concerned with Pell’s arraignment, which they argue was a “fundamental irregularity” due to Pell not formally pleading not guilty in the presence of the jury.

If the court sides with Pell’s lawyers on either the second or third grounds of appeal, he could receive a second trial. If the appeal is rejected on all three grounds, Pell will not appeal his sentencing, however it is still possible he could appeal to the Australian High Court.

Cardinal Pell’s trial was originally under a gag order, prohibiting media from publishing information on it. Catholic News Agency reported that in the fall of 2018, a hung-jury returned a 10-2 verdict for Pell’s acquittal, and that Pell was found guilty by the second jury to hear the case.

Some legal experts and commentators believe that the conviction rests on one of the victim’s testimony. Others question the plausibility of the crimes, given that they were said to occur in the sacristy of the Melbourne cathedral after the 10:30 am Sunday Mass between the months of August and December 1996, which would have been open for others to view and likely with other people in the area at the time.

Pell’s lawyers have said that he only celebrated Mass at the cathedral twice during the time frame and witnesses testified that both times the choir was recording or practicing after the Mass, and that on at least one of the times, Pell was in public view.

Pell, who served as the first prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy and on the C9 advisory group of cardinals to Pope Francis, has been barred by Australian Church officials from public ministry or having contact with minors since the time of his trial.