The High Court of Australia will hand down its decision in the case of Cardinal George Pell next week. The justices are considering Cardinal Pell’s petition for special leave to appeal his 2018 conviction for sexual abuse.
The court announced Thursday that a decision would be issued by the seven justices in the case Pell v. The Crown on April 7 at 10 am. By the time the decision is handed down, the bench will have considered the cardinal’s case for just over three weeks, after hearing two days of arguments in the case last month.
Pell is seeking to appeal the 2-1 split decision of the Court of Appeal in Victoria to sustain his 2018 conviction on five counts of child sexual abuse over two separate instances.
The High Court heard arguments from Pell’s legal team and from state prosecutors March 11-12, after which the justices reserved judgment.
At issue in the appeal is whether the jury that convicted Pell in December 2018 of sexually abusing two choristers could have plausibly found Pell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, after having heard the case presented by the prosecutors and the defense mounted by Pell’s lawyers.
The High Court could quash the guilty verdict against Pell, uphold it, or send the case back to the Victoria appellate court which upheld the conviction last year.
During the March hearings, Pell’s lead lawyer, Brett Walker SC, outlined a case for appeal grounded in the findings of Victoria Justice Mark Weinberg, whose dissenting opinion at the Victoria Court of Appeal in August found that the cardinal had been convicted on the evidence of a single alleged victim, despite the exculpatory testimony of as many as 20 witnesses, and that the jury could not have found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
Pell was convicted of committing acts of sexual assault on two choir boys simultaneously for five to six minutes in the cathedral sacristy, while he was fully vested after Mass. Walker suggested that would be practically impossible.
Walker also pointed out changes and inconsistencies in the narrative of the sole witness-accuser to give evidence against Pell. The second alleged victim died in 2014, before the trial began; before his death he told his mother that he was not a victim of sexual abuse.
Australian state of Victoria’s chief prosecutor, Kerri Judd, was grilled by the justices, who took issue with the state’s handling of key pieces of evidence in the case against Pell, most especially the evidence of Monsignor Charles Portelli, an aide to Pell.
Portelli’s testimony placed the cardinal outside his Melbourne cathedral at the time he was alleged to be sexually abusing two boys in the cathedral’s sacristy, on the Sunday in 1996 when that crime is alleged to have taken place.
At one point during the hearing Thursday, Judd conceded the Portelli’s testimony undermined the allegations of the prosecution, but urged the High Court justices to look past that fact in its deliberations, citing some inconsistencies in Portelli’s recollection of the Sunday, now 24 years ago, in question.
Judd told justices that “I do accept that when you look at Monsignor Portelli on his own, we may not be able to negate [reasonable doubt] to the standard we need to. But in my submission, when you look at the whole of the evidence, it does.”
The justices also considered the actions of the three-judge panel of the Victoria Court of Appeals, which upheld Pell’s conviction August last year. The Victoria judges chose to watch a video of the single victim-accuser’s testimony instead of reading the transcript. Pell’s legal team argued that this made them unable to dispassionately weigh the “reasonableness” of the jury being able to exclude reasonable doubt on the basis of his evidence alone.
Chief Justice Susan Kiefel said “It’s very difficult to say how [the video] affected an intermediate appellate court judge in terms of how they read the transcript.”
“That’s why you really shouldn’t do it [watch the video] … unless there is a forensic reason to do it. To what extent is this court to determine the extent to which the court of appeal was influenced by the video?” Kiefel asked.
Whatever the final outcome of Pell’s criminal appeal, the cardinal will likely face a canonical proceeding, overseen by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, soon after the Australian case reaches a definitive resolution.
Pell has told friends he remains faithful to God’s providence and committed to living his time in prison in the spirit of a monastic retreat.