By a majority of 2-1 Cardinal George Pell has lost his Appeal against his conviction for 5 charges of child abuse in 1990. The Appeal Court in Melbourne spent 11 weeks deciding whether or not the Jury in the trial made the wrong decision. As was made clear in their judgement, Appeal Courts don’t like to substitute their views for that of a Jury and would only do so if they were satisfied that the evidence was so weak that the Jury’s verdict was completely unreasonable.
Ultimately the majority decided that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to to decide that Cardinal Pell was Guilty. Interestingly, the Judge who was in favour of Cardinal Pell, namely Justice Mark Weinberg, was a former DPP of Victoria and the most experienced Criminal lawyer on the Court
As Chief Justice Anne Ferguson put it, the question was whether it was ‘reasonably open to the jury’ to bring in a verdict of Guilty. Two of the Judges accepted that the complainant in the case came over as a believable witness whilst one judge considered the complainants account to be ‘implausible and unconvincing’.
The Judges accepted that evidence from the witnesses who worked in the Cathedral showed that Cardinal Pell followed a predictable routine after Mass which the defence argued meant that he could not have committed the assaults in the way alleged and they accepted that the nature of religious ritual demanded consistency. However the majority then rejected that evidence on the basis that the predictable nature of Mass meant that the witnesses could not really remember the details of a specific Mass 29 years earlier
The majority also rejected the defence suggestion that the nature of the vestments that Cardinal Pell wore at Mass meant that the assaults were physically impossible. Having seen and examined the Vestments, they held that the Assaults as alleged were physically possible.
So is this the end of the legal road for Cardinal Pell? Probably, yes. He can lodge an Appeal with the High Court of Australia but that Court usually only deals with cases where there are questions of law which are constitutional or which have wideranging implications and the Pell case really revolves around its own very specific facts. That said, the fact that the Judgment of the Court of Appeal was not unanimous may make the Judges in the High Court interested in looking at the facts themselves but its very much of a long shot.
The above was written in the early hours of the morning when I only had the summary judgment of the Court. Since then I’ve been able to read the full judgment of 325 pages including the extremely thorough analysis by Justice Mark Weinberg who was the Judge who supported Cardinal Pell. In his judgment Judge Weinberg gives examples of a number of cases where the High Court of Australia has overturned Guilty Verdicts on the basis that they were unsupported by the evidence. Since the High Court has previously accepted that such cases do properly fall wthin its remit then I suspect it is more likely than not that they will grant leave to appeal in the extremely high profile case of Cardinal Pell
Whether Cardinal Pell will win such an Appeal is of course another matter but as a lawyer I have to say that I found Judge Weinberg’s forensic demolition of the prosecution case compelling and I am sure Cardinal Pells lawyers will rely heavily on what Judge Weinberg has said. One thing seems certain however, even if leave to appeal is granted there will be a delay until the High Court can hear and determine the case, Cardinal Pell will have quite a while to wait in prison and prisons are soul destroying places
Neil Addison is a Criminal Barrister and a former Senior Crown Prosecutor
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