Pell Found Guilty of Sexual Offences – Suppression Orders Explained

Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of child sexual abuse

The verdict was delivered unanimously at the conclusion of Pell’s trial in December last year, however, a suppression order prohibited the verdict from being reported in Australia. The suppression order was lifted on Tuesday. 

Pell is the highest ranking Catholic official in the world to have been found guilty of child sexual abuse.

The charges

Pell has been found guilty of:

  • One count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16
  • Four counts of committing an indecent act with (or in the presence of) a child.

The proceedings

Pell was charged with sexual assault offences in June 2017. He took leave from his position at the Vatican to return to Australia and face court. The proceedings took place in Victoria, which has a slightly different processes than NSW.

A committal hearing took place in Melbourne in March 2018. During a committal hearing a Magistrate decides if the Prosecution’s evidence is strong enough to take the matter to trial. During the committal hearing the Magistrate considered evidence arising from multiple complainants.

The Magistrate decided that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on a number of charges relating to two separate incidents.   

The first trial related to claims (which have now been proven in Court) that Pell had committed sexual offences at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, 1996. The second trial related to allegations about offending that took place in a swimming pool in Ballarat twenty years earlier.

The trial

The first trial (which related to the Cathedral incidents) began in August 2018. It resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared.  

The Cathedral trial was held for a second time, beginning in November 2018. On 11 December 2018 the jury found Pell guilty on all five charges. 

The swimming pool trial was meant to run in 2019.

Why are we only finding out now?

Until Tuesday, Australian media had been prohibited from reporting the verdict.

A suppression order had been in place to safeguard Pell’s right to a fair trial in relation to the swimming pool allegations.

The suppression order was revoked yesterday, after the DPP filed a motion to discontinue the swimming pool trial.

Suppression orders

A suppression order prohibits the release of information about a legal case.

Suppression orders may be imposed for a number of reasons, such as:

  • To protect an accused’s right to a fair trial
  • To protect the safety of witnesses
  • To protect national security

Why are suppression orders important?

Had the suppression order not been made, December’s verdict may have opened the floodgates for a “perfect storm of potential prejudice” against Pell, warned Victorian County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd.

Judge Kidd ruled that if a jury knew that Pell had recently been convicted of similar sexual offences, this would be likely to impinge on their ability to objectively consider the evidence presented in the swimming pool trial.  

If jurors are not objective, a mistrial may be declared and in some instances an accused may be acquitted.

While suppression orders are made regularly across Australia without controversy, Pell’s case has sparked debate about tensions between freedom of speech arguments and legal rights.   

If you violate a suppression order you may be in contempt of court. The penalty for contempt of court differs between states. It may range from a fine to a term of imprisonment (or both).

Over 100 journalists have been accused of breaking the suppression order in Pell’s case.  

Where to now?

Pell has continued to maintain his innocence. His Barrister, Robert Richter QC, has outlined that he will appeal his conviction.

Sentencing proceedings commence next week with a pre-sentence hearing.

In Victoria the maximum penalty for sexual penetration of a child (aged 12-16) is 15 years imprisonment. The maximum penalty for committing an indecent act with a child under the age of 16 is 10 years imprisonment.

Pell’s victim provided a statement responding to the publication of the verdict, which can be read here

If you need advice or representation for a criminal matter please contact Hamilton Janke Lawyers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 4038 1666 (office hours) or 0422 050 502 (24/7).

Lifeline 13 11 14 / Beyondblue 1300 22 4636

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