Cardinal Pell loses his appeal against conviction for child abuse

Cardinal George Pell has lost his appeal against his conviction for five charges of child abuse in 1990. In this guest post, Neil Addison, a criminal barrister and a former Senior Crown Prosecutor, discusses the case.

In George Pell v The Queen [2019] VSCA 186, by a majority of 2-1, Cardinal George Pell lost his appeal against his conviction for five charges of child abuse in 1990. There is a summary of the decision here.

The Appeal Court in Melbourne spent eleven weeks deciding whether or not the jury in the trial made the wrong decision. As was made clear in their judgment, Appeal Courts don’t like to substitute their views for that of a jury and would only do so if they were satisfied that the evidence was so weak that the jury’s verdict was completely unreasonable. Ultimately, the majority decided that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to decide that Cardinal Pell was guilty. Interestingly, the judge who was in favour of Cardinal Pell, Justice Mark Weinberg, is a former DPP of Victoria and the most experienced criminal lawyer on the Court

As Chief Justice Anne Ferguson put it, the question was whether it was “reasonably open to the jury” to bring in a verdict of Guilty. Two of the Judges accepted that the complainant in the case came over as a believable witness, whilst one judge considered the complainant’s account to be “implausible and unconvincing”. The judges accepted that evidence from the witnesses who worked in the Cathedral showed that Cardinal Pell followed a predictable routine after Mass, which the defence argued meant that he could not have committed the assaults in the way alleged, and they accepted that the nature of religious ritual demanded consistency. However, the majority then rejected that evidence on the basis that the predictable nature of Mass meant that the witnesses could not really remember the details of a specific Mass 29 years earlier.

The majority also rejected the defence suggestion that the nature of the vestments that Cardinal Pell wore at Mass meant that the assaults were physically impossible. Having seen and examined the vestments, they held that the assaults as alleged were physically possible.

So is this the end of the legal road for Cardinal Pell? – probably yes. He can lodge an appeal with the High Court of Australia, but that Court usually only deals with cases where there are questions of law which are constitutional or which have wide-ranging implications – and the Pell case really revolves around its own very specific facts. That said, the fact that the judgment of the Court of Appeal was not unanimous may make the judges in the High Court interested in looking at the facts themselves – but it’s very much of a long shot.

[NB All criminal prosecutions in Australia, England & Wales and Canada are brought in the name of the Queen, expressed as ‘Regina v ?’ However, Queen Elizabeth herself is not personally involved.]

Neil Addison

Cite this article as: Neil Addison, “Cardinal Pell loses his appeal against conviction for child abuse” in Law & Religion UK, 21 August 2019, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2019/08/21/cardinal-pell-loses-his-appeal-against-conviction-for-child-abuse/.

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