Australia’s High Court will announce on Wednesday whether it will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction on sexual abuse charges.
Two judges on the country’s highest court will announce whether the full court’s seven judges will hear their appeal, the Associated Press reports.
The court rejects about 90% of appeals.
In August, sources close to the cardinal told CNA that they thought Pell’s case would likely be accepted given the controversy triggered by the split decision of the Court of Appeals of Victoria, which rejected the cardinal’s appeal.
The cardinal, now 78, was convicted Dec. 11, 2018, on five charges that he sexually abused two 13-year-old choir boys after Sunday Mass while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997.
He was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he must serve at least three years and eight months before being eligible to apply for parole.
The controversial case has drawn significant public attention, with Pell’s defenders arguing he could not have committed sexual abuse in the sacristy after Mass, which was always crowded with people, without anyone noticing.
Pell’s lawyers have argued that two state appeals court judges made two errors when they dismissed his appeal in August.
Pell was incorrectly required to prove that it was impossible he committed the offenses, rather than putting the burden of proof on prosecutors, the cardinal’s attorneys argued. They also said that the judges were wrong to find the jury’s verdicts reasonable. The attorneys have argued there was reasonable doubt about whether Pell had the opportunity to commit the crimes.
The prosecutors of Pell’s case have rejected these claims and said the courts made no errors, the Associated Press reports.
Pell’s previous appeal was presented on three grounds, two of which were procedural, and dismissed by all three appeal judges. The judges were divided on Pell’s primary ground of appeal, that the decision of the jury was “unreasonable” given the demonstration of clear “reasonable doubt” that he committed the crimes with which he was charged.
Last year CNA reported that his initial trial, bound by a gag order, ended in a mistrial. This fact was confirmed by one of the judges in the Aug. 21 proceeding.
The prosecution rested on the testimony of one of the alleged victims— the one reported to have suffered two instances of abuse by Pell. The other victim died in 2014 and was unable to testify, but in 2001 had denied to his mother that any abuse occurred while he was a member of the choir.
Before the Court of Appeals of Victoria, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Court President Chris Maxwell formed the majority in favor of rejecting Pell’s appeal that the jury verdict was unreasonable on the evidence presented.
In an extensive dissent from the majority finding, Justice Mark Weinberg noted that the entirety of the evidence against Pell consisted of the testimony of a single accuser, whereas more than 20 witnesses were produced to testify against his narrative.
“Even the ‘reasonable possibility’ that what the witnesses who testified to these matters may have been true must inevitably have led to an acquittal,” Weinberg wrote, concluding that Pell had, in effect, been improperly asked to establish the “impossibility” of his guilt and not merely reasonable doubt.
Pell has maintained his innocence, with his defense making central the argument that the alleged crimes would have been, under the circumstances, “simply impossible.”
Pell was convicted of exposing himself and forcing two choir boys to commit sex acts while fully vested in his Sunday Mass garb, almost immediately after Mass in the priests’ sacristy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. Pell was at that time Archbishop of Melbourne. He was also convicted of fondling one of the boys in a corridor in 1997.
Pell’s defenders have contended that the sacristy abuse allegations are not possible given the high traffic after Mass and the obstructing nature of the Mass vestments.
The cardinal is detained at the Melbourne Assessment Prison. As a convicted child sex offender, Pell has been held in solitary confinement for extra protection from other inmates. He is not permitted to celebrate Mass in prison. He has recently obtained a prison job weeding a courtyard.
Responding to the Court of Appeal decision in August, Matteo Bruni, Holy See press office director, said that “the Holy See acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal,” while reiterating its “respect for the Australian judicial system.”
“As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.”