Lawyers for disgraced Cardinal George Pell claimed Wednesday he remains behind bars for child sex abuse based on “wrong” and “egregious” legal decisions, as they concluded a last-ditch appeal in Australia’s top court.
The 78-year-old former Vatican treasurer is trying to overturn a six-year sentence for sexually assaulting two choirboys in the 1990s.
Pell, who once helped elect popes, is the highest-ranking Catholic Church official to be convicted of child sex crimes.
He was not present for the two-day hearing at the High Court in Canberra, but supporters and protesters gathered outside, waving Australian flags and carrying rival signs that read “keep the faith Cardinal Pell” and “Burn in hell Pell”.
The court’s seven judges could decide to reject the appeal — leaving Pell to serve the remainder of his sentence — or allow it, giving him the prospect of walking free. They could also send the case back to a lower court to reconsider.
A jury found him guilty in December 2018 on five counts of abusing the 13-year-old choirboys at a Melbourne cathedral when he was archbishop of the city.
That verdict was upheld in August 2019 by a three-judge panel in a 2-1 decision.
Pell’s barrister Bret Walker told the High Court Wednesday there were “compounding improbabilities” in the case that had pitted the powerful clergyman against a former choirboy victim now in his 30s.
Walker said the “shocking allegations” of sexual abuse were said to have taken place in a crowded cathedral and another public space, which he argued was “quite different” from typical sexual offending that tended to occur in “covert” settings.
Walker also argued the lower court judges took a “terribly damaging, wrong route”, effectively required Pell to establish his innocence, rather than simply raise doubt about the case against him, a decision he described as “egregious”.
Taking the judges through hundreds of pages of documents, Walker also claimed it would not have been possible for Pell to physically move his cumbersome robes to molest the boys, or would there have been enough time.
The prosecution has not yet responded, but in written submissions called the appeal “problematic”, saying the defense argument “glosses over evidence” that supports the victim’s account.
The case relied solely on the testimony of Pell’s surviving victim, as the other — who is not known to have ever spoken of the abuse — died of a drug overdose in 2014. Neither man can be identified for legal reasons.
The case is being closely watched by Australia’s legal fraternity, the public and the world’s media.
Pell has been removed from top Church bodies by the Vatican but remains in the priesthood.
The Vatican previously said it would avoid launching an investigation into his conduct until all legal avenues were exhausted.
The father of the dead victim was said to be “frustrated” by the defense claim the abuse was improbable because it took place in an area where other people were likely to be.
“Perpetrators can be opportunistic, arrogant, and willing to use their power over vulnerable people in often brazen circumstances,” said his lawyer, Lisa Flynn.
Image: AFP/File / William WEST Australian Cardinal George Pell leaving court during an earlier hearing. He was not present for the latest appeal