Cardinal George Pell loses appeal over child sexual abuse convictions

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

Cardinal George Pell’s six year jail sentence for child sexual abuse convictions will be upheld after his appeal at Victoria’s Court of Appeal was dismissed.

The decision was delivered at the Court of Appeal on Wednesday morning by Chief Justice Anne Ferguson in front of a packed court room.

The appeal was rejected in a two to one majority decision, with Justice Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell voting to reject the appeal.

Justice Mark Weinberg opposed their decision, saying the convictions could not stand due to the evidence presented in Cardinal Pell’s defence, Justice Ferguson said.

Cardinal Pell, 78, was convicted in December of five charges over the rape of one 13-year-old choirboy and sexual assault of another at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.

Cardinal Pell has lost his appeal at Victoria's Court of Appeal. Source: AAP

He was sentenced in March to six years in prison, to serve three years and eight months before becoming eligible for parole.

He sat emotionless in the dock as he absorbed the information Justice Ferguson relayed.

Justice Ferguson said she and Justice Maxwell believed the complainant was a compelling witness, not a fantasist.

"Throughout his evidence the complainant came across as someone who was telling the truth," she said.

"He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution."

She said the judges had watched the evidence, including some parts a number of times.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson delivers the verdict. Source: SCV

They also visited the cathedral and examined the robes, which Pell's defence team had argued were too heavy to be pulled aside so he could expose his penis, as had been alleged.

"We found the robes were capable of being manoeuvred in a way that could be described as moved or pulled aside," she said.

Pell applied for leave to appeal on grounds that County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd had made two errors, including not allowing an animation of what the defence said occurred in the cathedral that day.

There was no evidence of any kind that this particular scenario presented in the animation had occurred, Justice Ferguson said.

George Pell arriving at the Supreme Court of Victoria on Wednesday.
Cardinal Pell arrives under heavy police guard at the Supreme Court. Source: AAP

"It was plainly intended to plant into the minds of the jury that the complainant's account was impossible," she said.

They also ruled that Pell was not required to be physically present when he was arraigned - officially asked how he pleaded - in front of the jury pool. Presence via videolink, as occurred, was sufficient.

Hundreds had gathered outside the court on Wednesday morning eagerly awaiting the decision.

Cardinal Pell arrived at court in a prison van with his head bowed, surrounded by guards roughly an hour before the decision.

He will return to Melbourne Assessment Prison, where he was being kept under 23-hour lockdown for his safety, to complete his six year sentence.

Supporters of the victims outside the court following the decision. Source: AAP

He has a non parole period of three years and eight months.

It is widely expected Cardinal Pell’s legal team will take the matter to the High Court following the appeal’s dismissal.

It has also been confirmed he will be stripped of his Order of Australia award after losing the appeal.

Pell’s spokesperson releases statement

Cardinal Pell’s spokesperson at the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney released a statement shortly after the verdict.

"Cardinal Pell is obviously disappointed with the decision today," the statement read.

"However his legal team will 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.

"We thank his many supporters."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Wednesday the process of removing Cardinal Pell’s honours, while external to the Government, would now begin.

He also offered his support to victims of sexual abuse and urged anyone who has information to share on such incidents to come forward.

“My sympathies are with the victims of child sexual abuse, not just on this day, but on every single day,” he said.

“I would urge Australians who find themselves re-living these experiences to reach out to those around them, to reach out to the services that are there for them in whatever phase of life they're in.

“These things can take you back a long way.”

Victims’ supporters celebrate outside court

There were scenes of celebration from the victims’ supporters outside of court once the decision was announced.

A group of men holding placards, one reading Justice for witness J, spoke with reporters following the verdict.

“An incredible day. A monumentous day for everyone in Australia, not just Australia but all around the world,” one man said.

“Let's just hope that this shows that no-one is above the law.”

The father of one of the victims who died from a drug overdose in 2014 shed tears of relief in the courtroom when Justice Ferguson handed down the decision.

“It’s been an extremely tough wait for our client who has had to deal with the awful thought that maybe the man who destroyed his son’s life could have his conviction overturned,” Abuse Law Expert Lisa Flynn of Shine Lawyers, who are representing the victim’s father, said.

The other victim said via his lawyer that the criminal process had been “stressful.”

“The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from," he said.

The Victorian government issued a brief statement after the decision was revealed.

"Our thoughts are with the victims and their families during this incredibly difficult time," a spokeswoman for Premier Daniel Andrews said.

"It is not appropriate to comment on the decision, as the courts are independent of government.

"As this matter may be subject to appeal it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Read the Court of Appeal’s judgement in full here.

With AAP

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