The George Pell High Court Appeal
Cardinal George Pell is Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric. In November 2019, Justice Edelman and Justice Gordon considered an Application for Special Leave to appeal for Pell to appeal against his conviction. They referred this matter to a Full Court of the High Court of Australia, who is now considering whether special leave should be granted for an appeal against his conviction, with the decision set to be handed down on 7 April 2020.
Why has this case been of such public interest?
Pell was found guilty of five charges of historical child sexual offences against two choirboys were aged 13-years old at the time and sentenced to six years imprisonment in December 2018.
These offences are said to have occurred when Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s, occurring after a Sunday mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
A central focus of the proceedings has been demeanour of the first choirboy in the delivery of his evidence. The second choirboy before the matter was reported to police in 2015, though he had previously denied being abused.
Pell has always maintained his innocence.
The case before the Victorian Court of Appeal
Cardinal Pell’s legal team appealed this finding to the Victorian Court of Appeal following his conviction and sentence, arguing that the original verdict was unreasonable because the evidence led in the trial could not lead to a finding of guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
In August 2019, Chief Justice Ferguson and Justice Maxwell of the Victoria Court of Appeal dismissed Pell’s argument, commenting that the complainant “came across as someone who was telling the truth. He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution.” On this basis, the majority were satisfied that it was open to the jury to conclude Pell’s guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
However, Justice Weinberg was of a different opinion, noting that “having had regard to the whole of the evidence led at trial, and having deliberated long and hard over this matter, I find myself in the position of having a genuine doubt as to [Pell’s] guilt”.
Arguments before the High Court
Pell’s legal counsel has appealed to the High Court on the basis that the Victoria Court of Appeal reversed the onus of proof. What this argument means is that the Court of Appeal required Pell to establish his innocence, rather than requiring the Crown to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Another aspect to the appeal is that given the timeframe in which the offending is alleged to have been committed, the evidence suggests that there was no opportunity for Pell to commit the offences. On this basis, Pell’s Counsel argues that the jury’s verdict was unreasonable.
Pell’s legal counsel is seeking to have the convictions quashed, which would mean that Pell would be released from prison.
The Prosecution, however, is arguing that Pell’s appeal glosses over evidence which supports the choirboy’s account, maintaining that the conviction should be upheld.
One of the central issues of the appeal hearing is the window of time in which Pell was said to have sexually assaulted the choirboys. In addition, the questions arose as to whether the complainant’s video evidence should have been viewed by the Court of Appeal and the extent to which the court of appeal was influenced by the complainant’s demeanour.
The transcript of the hearing and the submissions of Counsel can be found on the High Court of Australia Website.
The High Court has reserved its decision in this matter and is now deliberating about the outcome, with four possible outcomes:
- Refuse special leave to hear the appeal; or
- Grant special leave but dismiss the appeal; or
- Grant special leave and allow the appeal (quashing the convictions), or
- Grant special leave and send the case back to the Victorian Court of Appeal for a retrial.