The case that has dominated the media over the last six months was back in court last week as the appeal process got underway.
Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of historical child sexual abuse by a unanimous jury verdict in December 2018.
However, a suppression order prohibited the verdict from being reported in Australia until the order lifted in February 2019.
Pell is the highest-ranking Catholic official in the world to have been found guilty of child sexual abuse.
He is currently serving a six-year sentence of imprisonment.
The appeal points
Pell’s legal team cited three grounds for appeal which were as follows:
- The verdicts were ‘unreasonable’ and could not be supported by the evidence. Essentially, Pell’s legal team argued that Pell could not have been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the evidence presented during the trial.
- The trial judge should have allowed the defence to show the jury a video. The video is alleged to have outlined where people would have been placed in the cathedral. (The trial judge ruled that the video was based on speculation and refused to allow the defence to play it for the jury as part of their closing address).
- Pell was not arraigned in front of the jury. This means that Pell was not asked whether he was pleading guilty or not guilty in front of the jury.
What happened during the appeal?
The appeal was held over two days. As is required by law, Pell’s legal team applied for ‘leave to appeal’, which was granted.
The appeal then proceeded.
The defence’s key argument was based on an alibi provided by Pell’s Master of Ceremonies, Charles Portelli.
Portelli told the jury that Pell could not have committed the acts as it was customary for him to greet churchgoers after the ceremony (when the offences occurred).
Portelli further added that he was always by Pell’s side while he was robed.
Pell’s legal team argued that this constitutes reasonable doubt.
The Prosecution argued that the complainant was a ‘believable and compelling witness’.
The impact of the live broadcast
The appeal was live-streamed on the Supreme Court of Victoria’s website in response to the high public interest in the case.
The camera was placed on the judges, never once panning to film Pell.
While many journalists and lawyers alike praised the live stream for promoting the public interest in open justice, it did seem to impact on the delivery of the Prosecution’s arguments.
In Victoria, victims of sexual assault cannot normally be named. However, their names are often used during court proceedings.
Forgetting the context in which the appeal was taking place, the prosecutor accidentally referred to the victim by his name.
Fortunately, there was a 15-second delay in the live stream, which prevented the name from being broadcast.
However, the slip appeared to rattle the Prosecution.
The Prosecution appeared to waver somewhat when the judges questioned their arguments.
In response, Justice Weinberg offered, “if it helps … juries almost always get it right,” before adding, “the word is almost”.
What’s going to happen?
The judges reserved their decision, meaning they will retire to consider the evidence.
If Pell succeeds on the first ground, his conviction will likely be overturned, and he will be released from gaol.
However, if the judges accept the second or third appeal points, then they have the power to order a retrial.
It is anyone’s guess when the decision will be made.
It is not unusual for appeals of this nature to take eight to ten months before a decision is delivered.
However, the decision is expected to be expedited in this instance, given Pell’s age, health and his custodial situation.