• Cardinal George Pell was released from prison on April 7, 2020 after the High Court quashed his five convictions for child sexual abuse.
Disgraced cardinal George Pell has spent almost all of 2019 in jail, serving a six-year sentence after being convicted of five sexual offences against two 13-year-old boys.
But Pell’s case – which has divided opinion internationally and taken years to get as far as it has – is still not over.
The convicted paedophile will have a final chance to overturn his conviction in March 2020, after the High Court of Australia agreed in November that it would hear appeal arguments.
He was initially investigated by Victoria Police’s Sano taskforce for “multiple offences” said to have been committed while he was a priest in Ballarat in the 1970s and while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
In June 2017, after more than 12 months of investigation, Pell, now 78, was charged with multiple counts of historical child sexual offences.
He denied the allegations, describing them as “without foundation and utterly false”, and vowed to clear his name. He also took leave from his role as the Vatican’s financial chief to fight the charges.
In mid-2018, some of the charges were thrown out, but two trials were ordered on others – separating the 1970s and 1990s allegations.
Pell’s first trial – on the 1990s cathedral charges – began in the Victorian County Court in Melbourne in August 2018. Pell again denied one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four of indecent acts with a child, over incidents involving the two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.
Only one of the former choirboys gave evidence. The other had died from a drug overdose in 2014.
But after a case that lasted more than a month and a week of deliberation, the Pell jury was discharged, unable to reach a verdict. Jurors wept as they left the courtroom.
Pell’s retrial before a new jury on the same charges began in November 2018 – and he was found guilty of all charges. The verdict was suppressed, preventing Australian media from reporting it, but the news was reported by international media within hours.
Hearings for Pell’s second trial began in February 2019 but there are several hitches – one charge was quickly dropped and a judge deemed some vital evidence inadmissible. Prosecutors then withdrew all remaining charges against Pell and abandoned the second trial on allegations he had indecently assaulted boys while he was a parish priest in Ballarat in the 1970s.
Pell was taken into custody on February 27 as a plea hearing began for his conviction on the cathedral charges.
In sentencing the cardinal in March, Judge Peter Kidd found he had gravely abused his authority as an archbishop, saying his offending was “breathtakingly arrogant.”
Describing the first attack, which came after Pell caught the boys drinking wine after mass, Judge Kidd said it was “brazen and forced.”
“Your offending encompassed two distinct episodes over a month apart,” he said.
“In my view, the first episode in the priest’s sacristy involved a brazen and forceful sexual attack on the two victims,” the judge said.
“The acts were sexually graphic. Both victims were visibly and audibly distressed during this offending.”
After the verdict, a statement from the surviving victim was read by his lawyer Vivian Waller.
“I appreciate the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child, however there is no rest for me. Everything is foreshadowed by the forthcoming appeal,” he said.
“Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, a few facts will always remain: I gave evidence for several days. I was cross-examined by Pell’s defence counsel. A jury has unanimously accepted the truth of my evidence.
Pell’s legal team appealed to the Victorian Supreme Court. At a two-day hearing in June, Pell’s Sydney barrister Bret Walker SC, argued that the retrial jury’s guilty verdict was a grave error by 12 members of the public.
Mr Walker, whose written submission argued there were 13 obstacles to convicting Pell, said the most “obvious feature” of the “unsatisfactory” guilty verdict was the lack of witnesses to the alleged crimes.
But a three-judge panel of Victorian Supreme Court rejected the appeal by a 2-1 ruling.
In their summary, the judges said there was “nothing about the complainant’s evidence” that meant the Pell “jury must have had a doubt”.
Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said the judges had decided the surviving choirboy was “not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of the truth”.
However, dissenting judge Justice Mark Weinberg found that at times the surviving choirboy was “inclined to embellish his account”.
Pell’s legal team immediately indicated they would appeal the Supreme Court’s ruling to the High Court of Australia. A ruling on that came in November, with the court agreeing to hear Pell’s appeal arguments.
Pell’s lawyers – Mr Walker and Ruth Shann – had argued the judges erred in not finding the jury’s verdicts unreasonable, claiming there was reasonable doubt about whether opportunity existed for the crimes to have occurred.
They also claimed that changes in law over the decades since the crimes were said to have occurred make it more difficult to test sex assault allegations.
The High Court hearing is expected in March 2020.