MELBOURNE, Jun 5 – Jailed Australian Cardinal George Pell launched an appeal Wednesday against his landmark conviction for child sex abuse, branding the charges against him as “bizarre” and “impossible”.
Pell, 77, left his prison cell under police guard to attend the two-day hearing, battling his conviction in December on five counts of sexually assaulting two choirboys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 and 1997.
The Vatican’s former number three — who managed the church’s vast finances and helped elect two popes — was sentenced in March to six years in prison, becoming the most senior Catholic ever jailed for child sex abuse.
Wearing his clerical collar and a black suit, Pell took notes of the proceedings as his lawyer, Bret Walker, detailed a long “catalogue” of elements he said should have prevented his client’s conviction.
Walker argued mainly that Pell’s jury verdict was unreasonably based on the testimony of a single surviving victim and that the judge in his trial unfairly disallowed defence evidence.
Pell’s second victim died of a drug overdose in 2014 and never officially disclosed the abuse.
Walker said the timing of the assaults in the cathedral and its sacristy following Sunday masses was “impossible” given the dates and Pell’s publicly verified movements on the days in question.
Walker said Pell was mingling with congregants at the western door of the cathedral when the abuse purportedly took place. “The word is alibi,” Walker said, adding that the entire case against the cardinal amounted to a “bizarre unlikelihood”.
Pell and his legal team also claim it was not possible for the two choirboys to have left their group unnoticed or for any sexual assault in the sacristy to have gone undetected when the cathedral was busy following mass.
The appeal was being heard by three judges of Victoria State’s Supreme Court: Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, President of the Court of Appeal Chris Maxwell and Justice Mark Weinberg.
The hearing is scheduled to continue until Thursday before the three judges make a decision on his case, a process that could take several weeks.
They could reject the appeal, order a retrial or acquit Pell. Any ruling could be appealed further to Australia’s High Court.
– ‘Breathtakingly arrogant’ –
Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, the three judges visited Saint Patrick’s cathedral to understand the evidence that was considered by the jury, a court spokesman said.
A first trial in Pell’s case last year ended in a hung jury. He was convicted in December at the end of a second trial, during which the judge, Peter Kidd, described the cleric’s crimes as “brazen”, “nasty” and a “breathtakingly arrogant” abuse of power.
Both trials were hidden from the public until a wide-ranging gag order was lifted in February after a second tranche of charges against Pell, involving alleged incidents in a swimming pool in his home town of Ballarat in the 1970s were dropped.
Jeremy Gans, a criminal justice expert at the University of Melbourne, said before Wednesday’s hearing that there was “a good chance that Pell will succeed” in his appeal.
“It’s unusual for such convictions to be based solely on the account of the victim, with no other evidence of the accused’s guilt whatsoever,” he said.
“And it’s especially unusual for that to happen when there was a second victim (who) never spoke of any abuse and cannot testify.
“That doesn’t mean Pell is innocent or that the jury made a mistake. It just means that the appeal court is likely to find that the jury’s verdict is an unsafe verdict.”
Outside court on Wednesday, victims of church sex abuse were distressed by the spectre of Pell being acquitted on appeal.
“The judges and the barristers will play with words,” said Joseph Mitchell. “They haven’t taken any notice of the jury. So here we go again. We’ve just been treated like a pack of fools.”
Pell, an outspoken conservative, enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of the church, from a pastor in rural Australia to being one of the pope’s closest advisers.
During his trial under the court-ordered veil of secrecy, the Vatican gradually removed him from top Church bodies with little explanation.
Shortly after his conviction, Pell was removed from the so-called C9 Council of Cardinals that are effectively the Pope’s cabinet and inner circle of advisers.
The Vatican dropped him as the Church’s finance chief and opened its own probe into his actions after his conviction was made public in February.
The investigation could result in a canonical trial and Pell’s expulsion from the priesthood.