CARDINAL PELL TO TAKE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD SEX CONVICTION TO THE HIGH COURT
September 17, 2019
(CNN)Disgraced Cardinal George Pell will take his case to Australia's High Court in a final attempt to overturn his conviction on five charges of child sexual assault.
The High Court of Australia confirmed Tuesday that an application has been filed by Pell's legal team to seek leave to appeal his conviction.
The move follows a failed bid to have the cardinal's conviction quashed in the appeals court, leaving the High Court as the only means of clearing his name and avoiding a six-year prison sentence.
The 78-year-old former Vatican treasurer was convicted last year on one count of sexual penetration of a child and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child. The charges relate to two incidents involving two 13-year-old choirboys in the mid-1990s.
The attacks occurred when Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne and a rising figure within the Catholic Church. He is the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of child sex abuse in an institution that for decades has been accused of covering up alleged abuse by its clergy.
The High Court is expected to agree to review the case given the cardinal's high profile and the intense public scrutiny of his conviction. It is likely to be heard by a panel of judges, who would give a majority ruling, likely sometime next year.
Pell was convicted in December after a trial held in secret to avoid prejudicing another potential trial, which was ultimately abandoned. He was sentenced to six years in prison and must serve three years and eight months before being eligible for parole.
Pell's legal team immediately appealed his conviction on the basis that there were 13 "solid obstacles" to a guilty verdict. It was "not possible," they argued, for Pell to have been left alone to carry out the attack in the priest's sacristy of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne. He wouldn't have been able to move his heavy robes, they said, nor would it have been possible for the boys to have slipped away unnoticed from the choir procession.
However, in a ruling handed down on August 21, two of three appeals court judges rejected all 13 points raised. Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell said they found the victim was a "very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth."
It was possible for the jury to have convicted Pell beyond reasonable doubt, they said. However, one judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, said he thought the witness "was inclined to embellish aspects of his account," which undermined his trust in the whole account.
"There is, to my mind, a 'significant possibility' that the applicant in this case may not have committed these offences. That means that, in my respectful opinion, these convictions cannot be permitted to stand," Weinberg wrote in his dissent.
That a senior, respected appeals court judge could disagree with two of his colleagues is likely to have emboldened Pell's legal team's efforts to have the jury's verdict overturned. Pell had 28 days to file a High Court appeal. He has consistently denied the allegations. A High Court ruling is final and cannot be appealed.
During the trial, Pell's victim told the court he had kept the attack secret for years, but gave a statement to police in 2015 after attending the funeral of his friend, the second choirboy in the case. The second choirboy died from an accidental overdose after years of drug abuse. They had never discussed what happened, and the second choirboy died without having told anybody about the abuse. Neither man can be named under an Australian law designed to protect victims of sex abuse.
In a statement after the appeals court ruling in August, the accuser said he came forward because he knew his friend had been in a "dark place," and that he'd been there, too. "Some commentators have suggested that I reported to the police somehow for my own personal gain. Nothing could be further from the truth," he said.
"I have risked my privacy, my health, my wellbeing, my family. I have not instructed any solicitor in relation to a claim for compensation. This is not about money and never has been.
"I felt I should say what I saw and what happened to me. I had experienced something terrible as a child, something that marked my life. I wanted at least some good to come of it," he said in the statement.
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