Australia’s top court is set to rule on Cardinal George Pell’s final appeal to overturn his conviction for child sexual abuse.
The ex-Vatican treasurer is serving a six-year jail sentence after a jury found he abused two boys in a Melbourne cathedral in the 1990s.
Pell is the most senior Catholic priest ever to be found guilty of such crimes.
He has challenged the verdict at the High Court, arguing that the jury did not properly consider all evidence.
On Tuesday, the court will hand down its judgement in the case and is likely to determine whether Pell serves the remainder of his sentence or walks free.
It represents the 78-year-old’s last avenue of appeal, after a lower court rejected his first attempt to quash the verdict last year.
Pell has maintained his innocence since he was charged by police in June 2017.
His conviction has rocked the Catholic Church, where he had been one of the Pope’s most senior advisers.
What was the original guilty finding?
In December 2018, a jury unanimously found Pell guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in private rooms in St Patrick’s Cathedral. Pell was serving as the archbishop of Melbourne at the time.
The convictions included one count of sexual penetration and four counts of committing indecent acts.
Pell’s trial heard testimony from the only surviving victim. The abuse was not witnessed by anyone else, but the trial also heard evidence from dozens of churchgoers.
In sentencing Pell in 2019, Judge Peter Kidd said the cleric had committed “a brazen and forcible sexual attack on the two victims”.
Timeline of key events in Pell’s case
- June 2017: Victoria Police charge Pell with “historical sexual assault offences”. The cardinal vehemently denies the charges from Rome
- May 2018: A judge orders a criminal trial to go ahead in Australia. Pell formally pleads not guilty
- September 2018: The trial ends in a hung jury, prompting a second trial
- December 2018: Second jury unanimously finds Pell guilty
- February 2019: Media report Pell’s conviction for the first time, after a gag order is lifted
- March 2019: Pell sentenced to a maximum of six years in jail
- August 2019: Pell unsuccessfully challenges the verdict in Victoria’s Court of Appeal
- September 2019: He lodges a final appeal with the High Court of Australia
- March 2020: The court heard his final appeal and reserved its ruling until a later date
What has Pell argued?
His central argument is that the jury and previous appeal court relied too heavily on evidence from the victim who testified.
His lawyers have described that victim’s testimony as “compelling” but argue it is uncorroborated. They assert the jury did not properly consider other evidence.
“No matter how favourable a view was taken of the complainant, it was not open to the jury, acting rationally, to conclude that the prosecution had eliminated all reasonable doubt,” his lawyers said.
Prosecutors reject these assertions. Two of the three appeal judges rejected Pell’s first challenge in Victoria’s Court of Appeal last year.
Chief Justice Anne Ferguson of that court said: “The complainant was a compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.”
Who is George Pell?
Pell was among the highest-ranking figures in the Church’s global hierarchy.
Made a cardinal in 2003, he was summoned to Rome in 2014 to help clean up the Vatican’s finances.
He forged a reputation as a disciplined Church leader who held strict conservative views against same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.
In Australia he circulated among the political elite, and even after his conviction he received public statements of support from two former prime ministers.