Australia’s High Court announced its decision Wednesday to hear an appeal of Cardinal George Pell, who was found guilty in late 2018 of sexually abusing a choirboy in the mid-1990s.
Pell’s legal team argued in their 12-page application for appeal that two state appeals court judges made a mistake by requiring Pell to prove the abuse was impossible, ignoring the legal presumption of innocence.
They said Pell should be acquitted of all charges for several reasons, including inconsistencies in the accuser’s version of what transpired.
In August, an Australian court in Victoria rejected the 78-year-old cardinal’s appeal against the abuse charges by a split judgment of 2-1, with two of the judges saying they found the former choirboy’s testimony “very compelling.”
The third judge, on the other hand, found that the plaintiff’s account “contained discrepancies,” adding that there was a “significant possibility” Pell did not commit the offences.
Pell’s December 2018 conviction rested on the closed-door testimony of the sole surviving plaintiff, meaning that the jury had to accept the word of one against the other, since there were no other witnesses nor material evidence from the alleged events.
At that time, Cardinal Pell issued a statement through his spokesperson, 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.”
A number of prominent figures have defended Pell, suggesting that he is the victim of anti-Catholic animus.
In 2017, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard came out in Pell’s defense against what some have called an anti-Catholic “witch hunt,” underscoring the cardinal’s well-documented efforts to eradicate 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.
Others have criticized the way the case has been adjudicated.
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.
Reacting to the decision of the High Court, Catholic League President William Donohue said that Pell had received a “measure of justice” and that there is still “a glimmer of hope that justice will triumph in the end.”
“Pell has been defamed, wrongly convicted, and unjustly sentenced to solitary confinement,” Donohue stated. “More than 20 witnesses took his side: they never saw anyone break ranks from a procession of choristers, altar servers and clerics to be with Pell in the back of a church, the supposed location of the abuse.”