The High Court’s decision to hear disgraced cardinal George Pell’s appeal arguments will serve only to further discourage child sexual abuse survivors from coming forward, leading anti-abuse campaigner Chrissie Foster says.
Describing Wednesday’s ruling as “off-putting” to other victims who are tossing up whether to report abuse, Ms Foster – whose two young daughters were sexually abused by a Catholic priest at their primary school in the 1980s – said the justice process seemed never-ending.
“Where does it end? With him walking away? Is that when the barrage stops, when George Pell gets off?” she told The New Daily.
Pell, 78, was found guilty by a jury earlier in 2019 of the rape of a 13-year-old choirboy and sexual assault of another at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996. He has always denied any wrongdoing.
In August, the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld the jury’s verdict, in a 2-1 ruling.
On Wednesday morning, Justices James Edelman and Michelle Gordon announced they agreed Pell’s disputed convictions should be referred to a full court of the High Court “for argument as on an appeal”.
The High Court did not formally grant or refuse Pell’s application for special leave to appeal, instead referring the matter to the full court.
After the hearing, the court could refuse the application for special leave, or approve it and either allow or dismiss the appeal.
The referral was basically the same as a grant of leave, the University of Melbourne’s Jeremy Gans said.
“A majority of the justices will decide which side wins,” Professor Gans tweeted.
What does this mean? The short-hand is that it's basically the same as a grant of leave. Pell and the DPP will make their arguments before five or seven justices. A majority of the justices will decide which side wins.
— Jeremy Gans (@jeremy_gans) November 12, 2019
The High Court matter is not expected to be heard until 2020.
According to lawyer Dr Judy Courtin, for every 1000 child sexual assault victims, 100 will report abuse to the police – and just six convictions will result from these reports.
Then, about 55 per cent of these convictions are appealed. Of those, more than half are successful, Dr Courtin told a 2013 conference by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.
“This is a crime that you may as well do because you’re not going to get locked up. It’s just dreadful,” Ms Foster said.
Child sexual abuse survivor Phil Nagle said Wednesday’s ruling showed just how gruelling the court process was.
“I just see it as like the process never ends and it seems to be very, very difficult to uphold a conviction,” he told TND.
However, a “very pleased” former Catholic priest, Eugene Ahern, described the High Court decision as “entirely reasonable”.
“We should all accept that the umpire has the right to make a decision,” he said.
“The grounds that were put by Cardinal Pell’s lawyers deserve to be examined at the highest legal level in our country.”
Dr Viv Waller, a Melbourne lawyer who represented one of the affected choirboy’s at Pell’s trial, said she and her client were “very respectful” of the High Court’s decision.
“The appeals process is a very important part of the justice system and it’s important that the criminal justice system has checks and balances in it,” she said.
“We will be waiting for the outcome of the appeal.”
While being a witness in a sexual assault case was “always a difficult process”, Dr Waller encouraged survivors to report such matters to police – if they’re able and it won’t adversely affect their wellbeing.
“It would be a very undesirable consequence if this made people reluctant to report these very serious matters to the police,” she said.
The father of the second Pell victim, who died aged 31 from a drug overdose, is devastated, his lawyer Lisa Flynn said.
“He was really hopeful that this would be over for him today because as the process goes on, and has gone on for some time, it is extremely re-traumatising for him,” she said in Brisbane.
“Every appeal that is announced by Pell is a downturn. It brings up the raw emotions.”
It is understood Pell’s lawyers told the former Vatican treasurer about the High Court decision in person on Wednesday.
Pell is serving a six-year jail term and is ineligible for parole until he has served three years and eight months of his sentence.