The fate of jailed Australian Cardinal George Pell was in the balance Thursday as judges adjourned to deliberate over an appeal against his conviction on historical child sex abuse charges.
The three judges in Victoria state’s Supreme Court heard two days of arguments by Pell’s lawyers demanding his December conviction be quashed, while prosecutors insisted the jury verdict against the one-time top Vatican official was “unimpeachable”.
The judges can decide to reject the appeal, order a retrial or acquit Pell, the Catholic Church’s most senior convicted child molester. There was no indication of when their ruling would be handed down.
Lawyers for Pell, who turns 78 on Saturday, raised 13 objections to his conviction on five counts of sexual abuse for the assault of two 13-year-old choirboys following Sunday Mass in the 1990s.
Their appeal maintains that the case against Pell was unreasonably dependent on the testimony of a single victim –- the second choirboy died in 2014 — and fell short of proving his guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
The former Vatican number three, who controlled the Holy See’s vast finances and was involved in the election of two popes, was sentenced in March to six years in prison.
He was accused of sexually abusing the two choirboys in 1996 and 1997 in the sacristy and hallways of St Patrick’s Cathedral when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell’s defence team argued during the first day of the appeal Wednesday that it was “physically impossible” for the cleric to have committed the crimes in a crowded cathedral following Sunday services.
“The verdicts represent a disturbing failure of our jury system,” Pell’s team said in their submission. “The verdicts should be quashed.”
“I’ve said before in judgements that I think juries almost always get it right,” responded Justice Weinberg, before adding, “The word is almost.”
Pell’s team cast doubt on everything from the timing of the incident to the improbability of his being able to move his cumbersome archbishop’s robes aside to commit the assaults.
They also questioned why a witness who might have provided Pell with an alibi was not called to testify and complained that testimony from a close aide to the archbishop who said Pell was never left alone following a mass was not given sufficient importance.
The prosecution, taking the floor on Thursday, defended the account given by Pell’s surviving victim, calling him a “witness of truth”.
“When looking at the whole of the evidence, the integrity of the jury’s verdicts is unimpeachable,” they said.
Prosecutor Christopher Boyce however struggled at several points to respond to questions from the judges, and was visibly rattled after inadvertently naming the surviving complainant in open court, contrary to legal rulings.
The hearing was live-streamed to the public, but a 15-second delay allowed the court to prevent the victim’s name being broadcast.
Pell attended both days of the hearing, flanked by heavy police guard.
Wearing his clerical collar, Pell appeared deep in thought as he pressed his fingertips together and listened to the proceedings.
He took copious notes on a yellow legal pad and at one point passed a post-it note to his legal team through a guard.
‘Literally, logically impossible’
Jeremy Gans, a legal expert at the University of Melbourne, said Thursday’s hearing and the “barrage” of questions from the judges to prosecutors reinforced the expectation of many experts that Pell’s appeal would succeed.
“The betting market would have really shot up in Pell’s favor today,” he told AFP, adding that the weight of evidence and onus of proof posed a problem for the prosecution.
“Their big trump card is the complainant’s testimony, and the judges made it clear that was not the trump card to end the discussion,” he said.
Whichever side loses the appeal is expected to take their case to Australia’s High Court.
Since his conviction, Pell has been removed as the Vatican finance chief and lost his place in the so-called C9 Council of Cardinals that are effectively the Pope’s cabinet and inner circle of advisers.
The Vatican has opened its own probe into Pell’s actions. If his conviction is upheld, it could lead to his expulsion from the priesthood.
Image: AFP / ASANKA BRENDON RATNAYAKE Australian Cardinal George Pell is escorted into the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, which is hearing his appeal against a landmark conviction for child sex abuse