UPDATED: Australian High Court refers Cardinal Pell’s appeal of sex abuse conviction
Melbourne, Australia, Nov 13, 2019 / 07:15 am (CNA) – The Australian High Court announced Wednesday that Cardinal George Pell’s application for special leave to appeal has been refferred to the full court for decision. Pell is seeking to appeal an August decision by the Court of Appeal in Victoria to uphold his conviction for child sexual abuse.
His application will now be considered by all the members of Australia’s highest court, and a decision is expected in March or April.
Pell’s appeal to the High Court in Canberra, Australia’s supreme court, is his last legal avenue to overturn a conviction that has divided opinion in the country and internationally.
Responding to the decision, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney said he “welcomed” the progress of the case at the High Court.
“The Cardinal has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” Fisher said. “The divided judgment of the Court of Appeal reflects the divided opinion amongst jurors, legal commentators and within our community.”
“For the sake of all involved in this case, I hope that the appeal will be heard as soon as possible,” Fisher said on Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, the Vatican also issued a statement “reiterating its trust in the Australian justice system.”
“The Holy See acknowledges the decision of Australia’s High Court to accept Card. George Pell’s request of appeal, aware that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence,” the statement said.
“At this time, the Holy See reaffirms once again its closeness to those who have suffered because of sexual abuse on the part of members of the clergy.”
The cardinal was convicted Dec. 11, 2018, on five charges that he sexually abused two choir boys after Sunday Mass while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997.
He was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he must serve at least three years and eight months before being eligible to apply for parole.
Cardinal Pell has maintained his innocence, with his defense making central the argument that the alleged crimes would have been, under the circumstances, “simply impossible.”
In an extensive dissent from the majority finding, Justice Mark Weinberg noted that the entirety of the evidence against Pell consisted of the testimony of a single accuser, whereas more than 20 witnesses were produced to testify against his narrative.
“Even the ‘reasonable possibility’ that what the witnesses who testified to these matters may have been true must inevitably have led to an acquittal,” Weinberg wrote, concluding that Pell had, in effect, been improperly asked to establish the “impossibility” of his guilt and not merely reasonable doubt.
All three judges granted further leave to appeal on the ground of the unreasonableness of the jury’s conviction.
Media commentators and members of the Australian legal community have voiced concerns about the reasoning of the two-judge majority opinion and the wider implications its argumentation could have for standards of evidence in criminal trials.