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Cardinal George Pell loses appeal of sex abuse conviction

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Judges dismissed the cardinal's appeal by a 2/1 margin. He will remain in prison

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell has been upheld by the Court of Appeals in Victoria. A three-judge appellate panel upheld his 2018 conviction for sexual abuse of minors in a divided decision delivered on August 21.

“By majority (2 to 1), the Court of Appeals has dismissed Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction for the commission of sexual offences. He will continue to serve his sentence of 6 years’ imprisonment. He will remain eligible to apply for parole after he has served 3 years 8 months of his sentence,” Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said in her opening remarks in the Supreme Court of Victoria.

“The offenses in respect of which Cardinal Pell was found guilty by a County Court jury were one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16, and four charges of indecent act with a child under 16. The trial lasted for five weeks. The jury deliberated for several days. The jury’s verdict was unanimous,” Ferguson noted.

“Cardinal Pell’s conviction and this appeal have attracted widespread attention, both in Australia and beyond. He is a senior figure in the Catholic Church and is internationally well known,” Ferguson noted.

“As the trial judge, Chief Judge Kidd, commented when sentencing Cardinal Pell, there has been vigorous and sometimes emotional criticism of the cardinal and he has been publicly vilified in some sections of the community.”

“There has also been strong public support for the Cardinal by others. Indeed, it is fair to say that his case has divided the community.”

Pell’s appeal was dismissed on all three grounds presented.

The cardinal, who remains an archbishop and a member of the College of Cardinals, was returned to prison immediately after court adjourned. He has been held in solitary confinement for 176 days. He may now be transferred from the intake and evaluation facility at which he is currently being held to a different prison in Victoria.

The cardinal was convicted on December 11 on five charges that he sexually abused two altar servers after Sunday Mass while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997. CNA reported last year that his initial trial, bound by a gag order, ended in a mistrial; this fact was confirmed by Ferguson in the August 21 proceeding.

Judges were divided on Pell’s first ground of appeal, regarding the question of whether the evidence presented against Pell was unreasonable and impossible. They were unanimous in dismissing two other grounds, regarding procedural matters: one that alleged Pell’s arraignment did not follow protocol, and the other raising a complaint that an animation of the cathedral where Pell was alleged to have sexually abused to choir boys was not permitted to be shown during closing arguments.

Ferguson, Justice Chris Maxwell, and Justice Mark Weinberg, delivered their verdict in a packed Courtroom 15 at the Victoria Supreme Court.

Twenty-six accredited journalists and some 60 members of the public heard the judges’ decision announced Wednesday morning. Pell’s brother David, the cardinal’s former communications director, Katrina Lee, and the chancellor of the archdiocese of Sydney, Chris Meaney were all among the crowd.

Ferguson said the judges said that they had reached the decision after each of the three judges had watched video of the evidence given by 12 of the 24 witnesses who appeared in the trial.

“Each of the judges has read [the trial] transcript, some parts of it multiple times,” Justice Ferguson said, referring to the more than 2,000 pages of documents related to the trial.

The session opened with Justice Wienberg registering his dissent from the majority opinion, saying that while he agreed with the other judges in rejecting the second and third grounds of appeal, which were technical and procedural complaints, he did not agree that the jury’s finding of guilt could have been beyond reasonable doubt on the evidence presented.

“Where the unreasonableness ground is relied upon, the task for the appeal court is to decide whether, on the whole of the evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty,” Ferguson explained.

“Having reviewed the whole of the evidence, two of the judges… decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt,” Ferguson said.

“In other words, those judges decided that there was nothing about the complainant’s evidence, or about the opportunity evidence, which meant that the jury ‘must have had a doubt.’”

Since Pell was first accused of sexually abusing minors, the cardinal has maintained his innocence.

Pell has one further avenue open in petitioning the Australian High Court in Canberra. Such an effort is expected by legal experts to offer very slim chances of success, given the appeal court result.

Pell’s lawyers have said that he will not petition for a shorter sentence. The cardinal, 78, is expected now to face a Vatican proceeding regarding the possibility that he has committed canonical crimes.