ROME — An Australian court rejected the appeal of Cardinal George Pell against child sex abuse charges Wednesday by a split judgment of 2-1.
Pell’s first trial in 2018 for accusations of sexually assaulting two choirboys when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s ended in a hung jury, deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of declaring the cardinal “not guilty.”
In a second trial last December, however, a new jury found Pell guilty of the charges and in March an Australian judge sentenced Pell to six years in prison, with the possibility of parole after three years and eight months.
The conviction rested on the closed-door testimony of the sole surviving alleged victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, meaning that the jury had to accept the word of one against the other, since there were no other witnesses.
The Vatican issued a communiqué Thursday, reiterating its respect for the Australian judicial system, but also recalling “that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court,” in reference to the country’s final court of appeal.
“At this time, together with the Church in Australia, the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to prosecute, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse,” the statement reads.
Cardinal Pell himself issued a statement as well, through his spokesperson, Katrina Lee, who said the cardinal “is obviously disappointed with the decision today” but that his legal team would “thoroughly examine the judgement in order to determine a special leave application to the High Court.”
“While noting the 2-1 split decision, Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence,” the statement said, as well as thanking “his many supporters.”
In 2017, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard publicly defended Pell against what some have called an anti-Catholic “witch hunt,” underscoring the cardinal’s well-documented efforts to root out sex abuse.
“It seems as if Cardinal Pell is being singled out to take the rap for the misdeeds of a whole lot of people and the evidence is that he was more active in trying to do something about it,” Howard said.
There seems to be a “get Pell” mentality in “some sections of the media,” Howard said.
Pell’s supporters have denounced the trial as a travesty for a number of reasons, including the physical impossibility of some of the actions that Pell is alleged to have performed.
The former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, railed against the conviction, calling the accusations “absolutely unbelievable.”
Müller noted that the incident was purported to have taken place in a public place — the archbishop’s sacristy — following a well-attended Sunday Mass.
“Nobody witnessed it,” the cardinal said, adding that that it would have been very difficult with “all the other persons” presumably in the area after Mass. One could believe such an incident could take place in a private house, he said, but not “in the public cathedral.”
“The allegations against him are absolutely unbelievable, it’s impossible. It’s without proof, against all evidence,” Müller said.
To judge a decades-old sex abuse charge with no corroborating evidence risks turning the presumption of innocence into a “legal fiction,” wrote Canon lawyer Ed Condon, and obliges jurors to choose “between the word of the accuser and that of the accused.”
In these cases, “the right to due process is at risk of becoming moot,” Condon said.
The Catholic intellectual George Weigel compared the Pell conviction to the notorious Dreyfus case, where Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was convicted of treason in 19th-century France.
“The charge was false; Dreyfus, a Jew, was framed,” Weigel wrote. “His trial was surrounded by mass hysteria and people with no grasp of the facts celebrated when Dreyfus was condemned to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.”
As former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, Pell is the highest-ranking Catholic figure to be tried and found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors.