Australian highest Court overturns Cardinal Pell’s sex abuse convictions

Cardinal George Pell will walk free from prison today after the High Court of Australia ruled he was wrongly jailed for child sexual abuse.

The 78-year-old prelate, was serving a six years prison term, and has spent more than 400 days behind bars in Victorian prisons.

The extraordinary, unanimous ruling by seven high court judges, comes during Holy Week, and was announced by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in a near-empty courtroom in Brisbane this morning.

Australia’s most senior Catholic became the highest-ranking church official to be jailed for sexually abusing children when a County Court jury convicted him of attacks on two choirboys in the 1990s.

The High Court ruling quashes Cardinal Pell’s conviction based on allegations that the prelate had abused two teenaged choir boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1996 and 1997, soon after he became Archbishop of Melbourne.

One of the boys gave evidence against Cardinal Pell, while the second died in 2014, without disclosing any abuse.

A jury found Cardinal Pell guilty of five counts of sexual abuse, although he had always maintained his innocence.

The full judgement of the High Court takes aim at the Court of Appeal in Victoria, that last year dismissed Pell’s appeal by a majority of two-to-one.

The High Court judgement goes right to heart of the question of “reasonable doubt”, saying that in the case of the Court of Appeal, their Honours’ analysis “failed to engage with the question of whether “… there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.

“The unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant’s account, and described: (i) the applicant’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass; (ii) the established and historical Catholic church practice that required that the applicant, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral; and (iii) the continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass.”

During the High Court Appeal, Cardinal Pell’s lawyer, Bret Walker SC told a seven-judge panel that key parts of the evidence presented at the 2018 trial must have given the jurors reasonable doubt.

Their testimony supported Cardinal Pell’s practice, when Archbishop of Melbourne in December 1996, of standing on the cathedral steps after Sunday Mass to greet parishioners and the “hive of activity” that surrounded the priests’ sacristy at the time the abuse is said to have occurred.

Monsignor Charles Portelli and sacristan Max Potter were key witnesses in supporting the defence case that Cardinal Pell could not have offended.

UPDATE: Cardinal Pell gives his statement

“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Cardinal George Pell said in a statement.

“This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.

“I look forward to reading the Judgment and reasons for the decision in detail.

“I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.

“However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church.

“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.

“The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.

“A special thanks for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support.

I want to thank in particular my family for their love and support and what they had to go through; my small team of advisors; those who spoke up for me and suffered as a result; and all my friends and supporters here and overseas.

“Also my deepest thanks and gratitude to my entire legal team for their unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.

“Finally, I am aware of the current health crisis. I am praying for all those affected and our medical frontline personnel.”

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s highest court has dismissed the convictions of the most senior Catholic found guilty of child sex abuse.

High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel announced the decision of the seven judges on Tuesday in the appeal of Cardinal George Pell. The decision means he will be released from Barwon Prison outside Melbourne after serving 13 months of a six-year sentence.

Pell had been ordered to serve three years and eight months behind bars before he became eligible for parole.

The High Court found that the Victorian Court of Appeal was incorrect in its 2-1 majority decision in August to uphold the jury verdicts.

Pell was regarded as the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official when he voluntarily returned to Melbourne in July 2017 determined to clear his name of dozens of decades-old child abuse allegations.

All the charges were dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by courts in preliminary hearings over the years except the cathedral allegations.

Pell was tried on the charges twice in 2018, the first County Court trial ending in a jury deadlock.

In the appeal Pell’s lawyer Bret Walker told the High Court that all that the prosecution had to do at his trial and appeals court hearing was to prove that Pell being left alone while robed or not talking with congregants after Mass was “possible” to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

“That … is a grotesque version of the reversal of onus of proof, if all the Crown has to do is to prove the possibility of something,” Walker said.

“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s (Pell’s) guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted,” the court said in a statement.


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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Thanks Joe for your consistent follow-through on this case. A good result. Fiat Justitia, ruat Coelum.

  2. Peter Langan says:

    Thanks to Joe O’Leary for these links, particularly to the text of the High Court’s judgment.

    This is a sad and disturbing case. Sad because, as all too often, there are at the end of the
    day only losers and no winners. Disturbing because there has been over the past year or
    so so much commentary that has been informed by pure prejudice: against Pell, by people who can
    think no good of the Church; and for Pell, by admirers of his who reject any possibility that he might
    have offended. The antidote for both the hunters and the fan club should be to read the judgment.
    For what little my view is worth, I found the analysis wholly convincing. It does NOT amount to
    a pronouncement that the complainant was lying or even mistaken: rather that the evidence of the so-called
    opportunity witnesses, and in particular the unchallenged evidence of the MC Mgr Portelli, raised a
    significant possibility that an innocent person had been convicted. That is as far as the judges, who plainly
    know the limitations of their craft, go.

  3. David Timbs says:

    It’s only just over three hours since the Chief Justice of the High Court delivered a precis of a unanimous decision. In the conclusion of the precis, the court found ironically that while the complainant was believable, the decisions of the jury were irrational in not finding a ‘reasonable doubt.’ From the judgment handed down earlier on:

    “The Court held that, on the assumption that the jury had assessed the complainant’s evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable, the evidence of the opportunity witnesses nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.”

    There will be endless commentary on this with little result beyond hot air. Some of the apologists for Christendom and the Church as societas perfecta will be out crowing and beating the drums. However that may be, our legal system in Australia is ranked in the top ten as compliant with the rule of law, so we must take some comfort in that. However, Pell is still facing some very big legal challenges.

    During the Royal Commission Pell was required to give evidence on a number of times and on different matters. At the end of one session in particular, both the Chief Commissioner, Justice Peter McClellan and the Counsel Assisting, Gail Furness, both informed Pell to his face that the Royal Commission found his testimony ‘implausible’ which is legal code for ‘liar’ and ‘perjurer.’ The Royal Commissions final report is contained in 18 volumes but only 16 have been published. The remaining two reports deal with Pell alone. Chances are that he’ll be looking at a succession of charges brought against him. Any plans for public celebrations by his fans will have to wait for a very long time with the Coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings even indoor parties!

    A large number of Australian Catholics are acutely conscious that millions of dollars have been spent to make sure that Pell received due process at every level, +Bill Morris received nothing of the sort, even remotely so, but was subjected to a ecclesiastical lynching tarted up to look like ‘God’s will for BIll’ as the unctuous Benedict told Morris.
    It is useful to hold to a strong eschatology!
    Despite the lockdowns and severe restrictions, may your Easter be full of blessings and Resurrection hopefulness.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    There is certainly nothing to celebrate in the rottenness of the Australian media:

    Pell’s acquittal was not due to pressure from the Catholic Church but to the integrity of one man, a Jew, Justice Mark Weinberg. Pell’s media champion Andrew Bolt declares that he is not a Catholic or even a Christian.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe, having listened to Fr. Brennan, a man I have great respect and admiration for, and also listened to Andrew Bolt on the link Pól sent us,I now realise and I have to say it is hard to understand why the jury did not find there was reasonable doubt in the first place..

    Given the geography of the cathedral and its environs and the tight time scale involved, there had to be doubt. I always thought that. You, on the other hand,Joe were always certain. You had no doubt he was innocent.

    Despite the presence of doubt, I did think he was probably guilty, on the balance of probability. And, that was also influenced by his other reported indiscretions –in the swimming pool, while watching ET, at the holiday camp and so on — some of which led to him being charged but never tried. And, of course, the verdict in most criminal cases is reached because of circumstantial evidence.

    I was very impressed by Fr. Brennan demolishing the prosecution case with such forensic attention to detail.

    And, it must have been a terrible ordeal for an old man to spend 404 days behind bars and 23 of the 24 hours in solitary confinement. He has now, perhaps, paid back his debt to humanity for his nastiness and his lack of any empathy or sympathy for those who approached him for support or just a sympathetic ear, especially those distraught parents of children who had been sexually abused by priests.

  6. Joe O'Leary says:

    I had no doubt of Pell’s innocence of the actual accusations made by complainant J because they were demolished by his lawyer Richter. It was a very obvious case of witch-hunt hysteria finding a scapegoat, the same dynamism as we saw in the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.

    The accusations were demolished again in the dissenting judgement of the first appeal (Weinberg — a masterpiece to be read carefully by all who want to comment fairly and rationally on the case.)

    The accusations were demolished for the third time by the High Court, in what amounts to a rebuke of the Victoria Director of Public Prosecutions.

    What more do you want, Paddy?

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    Giuliano Ferraro, left-wing journalist (posted on Facebook by Massimo Faggioli) sees Pell as a new Dreyfus:

    I can access only the start of his article:

    Non era solo un innocente in galera. Il caso Pell, il Dreyfus che nessuno voleva vedere

    Il libero spirito critico del mondo liberale si è accodato alla campagna predatoria contro l’orco cattolico. Obiettivo: ridurre quel residuo antimoderno che è la chiesa alla ragione postilluminista. Storia di un’assoluzione e di uno scandalo giacobino

    La Corte suprema dello stato di Victoria, Australia, non ha soltanto assolto all’unanimità il cardinale George Pell da un’accusa infamante di pedocriminalità non sostenuta da prove, alimentata da furia fanatica e da denunce e testimonianze a porte chiuse. Questo è avvenuto ed è stato decisivo per scarcerare un innocente. Pell aveva perso il rango di numero tre del Vaticano, che si era conformato a procedure giudiziarie inaudite il cui effetto era stato la decapitazione della gerarchia cattolica, vecchio obiettivo della…


    He wasn’t just an innocent in jail. The Pell case, the Dreyfus that nobody wanted to see

    The free critical spirit of the liberal world has followed the predatory campaign against the Catholic ogre. Objective: to reduce that anti-modern residue which is the church to post-Enlightenment reason. Story of an acquittal and a Jacobin scandal

    The Supreme Court of the state of Victoria, Australia (mistake for the High Court), has not only unanimously acquitted Cardinal George Pell from a defamatory accusation of pedocrimanality, unsustained by proofs, fueled by fanatical fury and by complaints and testimony behind closed doors. This has happened and is decisive in releasing an innocent man. Pell had lost the rank of number three of the Vatican, who had conformed to unprecedented judicial procedures whose effect had been the beheading of the Catholic hierarchy, the old goal of the …

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Looking up Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather on Wikipedia I came across this:

    Mr. Buroughs [sic] was carried in a Cart with others, through the streets of Salem, to Execution. When he was upon the Ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer) [as witches were not supposed to be able to recite] was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness as such fervency of spirit, as was very Affecting, and drew Tears from many, so that it seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution. The accusers said the black Man [Devil] stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off [hanged], Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare that he [Mr. Burroughs] was no ordained Minister, partly to possess the People of his guilt, saying that the devil often had been transformed into the Angel of Light. And this did somewhat appease the People, and the Executions went on; when he [Mr. Burroughs] was cut down, he was dragged by a Halter to a Hole, or Grave, between the Rocks, about two feet deep; his Shirt and Breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of Trousers of one Executed put on his lower parts: he was so put in, together with [John] Willard and [Martha] Carrier, that one of his Hands, and his Chin, and a Foot of one of them, was left uncovered.

  9. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe@13, I now accept that he is almost certainly innocent of the charges against him in relation to the 2 boys –one of them now deceased –in St. Patrick’s cathedral. And, certainly, there was sufficient doubt to render the guilty verdict unsafe.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    Is this the “storm of rage” that David Marr anticipates? Actually Fr Brennan is not letting the case go as water under the bridge. His careful analysis shows up more clearly than ever the amazingly irrational behaviour of the police, the DPP, and the prosecution, and verifies once again that prejudgement and hysteria translate into objective injustices: “An accused must be convicted of serious criminal offences only on the evidence. The trial prosecutor and DPP in this case promoted their own speculative case theories in an effort to get around or dis­regard credible evidence from its own witnesses without daring to challenge the honesty of those ­witnesses.”

    1. Mattie Long says:

      That link seems to be behind a paywall.
      The following interview gives an outline of Fr. Frank Brennan’s very clear and forensic opinion of this case and the failings of so many officials and police, failings which let down the plaintiff and complainant.

  11. Rory Connor says:

    I have a Blog article “Cardinal George Pell and His Accusers” dated 8 February and based partly on the dissent of Appeal Court Justice Mark Weinberg in August 2019.

    By Pell’s “accusers” I include the bulk of the Australian mass media that played a similar role in Ireland in 1999 and caused the bogus conviction of Nora Wall for child rape.

    In 2016 Andrew Bolt wrote in the Herald Sun. “There is something utterly repulsive about the media’s persecution of George Pell. There is something also very frightening about this abuse of power.” On July 3, 2017, Bolt said, “The media commentary suggests there’s little chance Cardinal George Pell can get a fair trial.” What concerned him was the temptation to make someone in the Church hierarchy pay for the sins of others. “He himself may be innocent,” Bolt says, “yet could be punished as a scapegoat.”

    Amanda Vanstone is not a friend of organized religion, but in her coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald she noted that “What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages.” She adds that “The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial.” She freely admits that she and Pell have “widely divergent views on a number of matters,” but having “differing views isn’t meant to be a social death warrant for the one with the least popular views.”

    Carl E. Olson writes in the Catholic World Report that “much of Australia seems to have held on rather tightly to its suspicion, dislike, and even hatred of the Catholic Church.” Olson quotes one of his Aussie correspondents. “The Australian leftist establishment hates him, the gay lobby hates him, the atheists, liberal Catholics and feminist ideologues hold him in contempt and he has taken on the Italian mafia in trying to reform the Vatican finances.”

    The short lived rape conviction of former Sister of Mercy Nora Wall in 1999 was also caused by media-inspired hysteria and anti-clerical hatred. An Irish Times editorial on 17 December 2005 entitled “Nora Wall” stated that: “The charges were laid at a time when allegations of the abuse of children in institutions had entered the public domain. The case was heard within a month of the broadcast by RTÉ of the [3 part] States of Fear programmes. The jury could not but have been affected, it seems, by the horrific abuse exposed in that series and by the complaints of the child victims that no-one listened to them.”

    Cardinal Pell was likewise subjected to a vicious media assault for years before his trial in 2018.

  12. Rory Connor says:

    Paddy, You say
    “He has now, perhaps, paid back his debt to humanity for his nastiness and his lack of any empathy or sympathy for those who approached him for support or just a sympathetic ear, especially those distraught parents of children who had been sexually abused by priests.”

    In my article “Cardinal George Pell and His Accusers”
    I list several other allegations against him. Are you referring to one of THESE?

    [In 2013] Pell was accused of doing nothing to help an abused Australian boy who pleaded for help in 1969. But Pell’s passport showed that he lived in Rome the entire year.

    At a later date, Pell was accused of chasing away a complainant who informed him of a molesting priest. The authorities dismissed the charges after discovering that Pell did not live at the presbytery in Ballarat where the encounter allegedly took place.

    Pell was also accused of joking about Gerald Ridsdale’s sexual assaults at a funeral Mass in Ballarat. But there was no Mass that day and the priest whom Pell was allegedly joking with, was living someplace else when the supposed incident took place.

    AND there were other false allegations. The media and the authorities were trying to get him for years – on claims that were even LESS credible than the ones that actually made it into court! This is anti-clerical hatred that is no better than the anti-Semitic variety.

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    Padraig, no, the paywall comes up again. Maybe if you look once it’s ok, but no more than once.

    “They will hound him to his grave” we are told. The very “accanimento” of which Pope Francis spoke.

    Here is the full interview with Andrew Bolt. Pell haters are saying he should shut up. But he hasn’t spoken for a year and a half.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Australian Catholics are very divided, it seems, chiefly about women and lgbt folk. Joshua’s remarks on Pell are rather odd and do not seem to add up. Even if resistance to women and others did not come from the Pell faction, would it not come from the Vatican, and from the current bishops who are obliged to follow the Vatican?

  15. Joe O'Leary says:

    Also it’s quite incorrect to say that Sky News Australia is something like Fox News (a judgement that may reflect bias against Pell and Andrew Bolt).

    Here is a fact check on that:

    It might be a good idea to put proceedings on hold for a year until people have put aside their Pell murmurings and got a more clear-sighted view of the issues the Australian church must face.

    Generally speaking the church everywhere is very poor at planning its future, as the recent synods have shown.

    Mulling over the past has become a drug.

    Fierce resistance to the necessary radical changes has become suicidal.

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paddy, I don’t see a single new point in what Marr reports. He agrees that Pell is just an ordinary human being, and it’s not clear that anyone else would have avoided making the same mistakes.

    Nothing new about Pell’s defence either, which he repeats today:

    In a statement issued on Thursday afternoon, Pell said he was “surprised by some of the views of the royal commission about his actions”.

    “These views are not supported by evidence,” Pell said. He maintained that he did not know of Ridsdale’s abusing children at the time or that this was the reason for him being moved between parishes. He also said a meeting he had with a delegation from Doveton parish in 1989 about Father Peter Searson did not mention sexual assaults, nor did the delegation ask Pell to remove Searson.

    However, Pell confirmed when he gave evidence before the royal commission he was handed a list of incidents and grievances about Searson at the meeting, which included reports Searson had abused animals in front of children and was using children’s toilets. But Pell told the commission this was not enough information for him to act.

    Shine Lawyers’ national practice leader, Lisa Flynn, who represents the father of Pell’s alleged victim, now deceased, said Pell did not deserve his cardinal title.

    “In my view, his position as Australia’s highest-ranking representative in the Catholic church should be reviewed based on his choice to protect paedophiles over innocent children, at the time the abuse occurred,” she said.

    “Pell’s preference to protect paedophiles over the safety of children is deplorable. There are no excuses for someone who conceals this disgusting behaviour towards innocent, young children.”

    Pell has always maintained his innocence in response to allegations against him, and was acquitted of his convictions by the full bench of seven judges of the high court in April. He has previously said he had been made a scapegoat for the Catholic church’s failures.

    Pell told Sky News in April: “I’m the scapegoat that’s copped most of this.” He said his actions setting up the Melbourne Response – the scheme established by the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1996 to respond to allegations of sexual abuse within the church – had not been adequately recognised and showed he took abuse allegations seriously.

  17. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe, I was simply sharing the piece in the Guardian yesterday following the release of the Report of the Royal Commission in Australia into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Are you challenging the credibility of the Royal Commission?

    I do agree with you, of course, about the mistakes of others. We all know that bishops were grossly negligent in confronting this crime in many parts including very close to home.

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