Cheers As Pedo Pell Loses Appeal of Six-Year Sentence
Cardinal George Pell is escorted in handcuffs from the supreme court back to jail after the court rejected his appeal against convictions for child sexual abuse. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images
George Pell cut a dishevelled figure as he stepped into Melbourne’s supreme court and took his seat in the dock, flanked by two police officers. His hair had grown long, a large bald patch showing through, and he wore all black, a pop of white showing from his clerical collar. Prison has taken its toll.ardinal
He had hoped to walk free from the building on Wednesday morning. Three appellant judges swiftly shattered that hope as their decision was delivered as to whether 12 jurors were unreasonable in convicting him for sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996 when he was the archbishop of Melbourne.
Within seconds of the chief justice, Anne Ferguson, the president of the court of appeal, justice Chris Maxwell, and justice Mark Weinberg taking their seats at 9.30am, Pell knew his fate.
“By majority two-to-one, the court of appeal has dismissed Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction for the commission of sexual offences,” Ferguson said. “He will continue to serve his sentence of six years’ imprisonment.”
Pell momentarily bowed his head but his face gave little away. The only sound in the court was of journalists typing as Ferguson read a summary of the court’s reasons.
So many big questions turn on the cardinal’s fate. The court’s decision will have repercussions around the world. It’s an extraordinary victory for police and prosecution. But it marks a bitter defeat for those supporters who have indulged in florid conspiracy theories to explain the destruction of their hero.
But none of this was the court’s worry. The three judges had only to decide who was telling the truth in this matter: a young man remembering a brief ordeal in the St Patrick’s Cathedral sacristy 22 years ago, or one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic world denying he had committed such a brazen crime?
Appeals from jury decisions in sex abuse cases can be extraordinarily complex. This wasn’t. All the judges had to do – once they unanimously flicked away a couple of technical arguments about evidence and procedures – was to decide whether the facts stacked up against the cardinal.
They were a third jury. The first jury couldn’t make up its mind. The second convicted. And, after looking at all the evidence again – they watched the videos, toured the cathedral, examined the robes – the judges of the court of appeal by two to one upheld Pell’s conviction.
Juries don’t give reasons. Judges do. The key to their decision was clearly the accuser whose name we can never publish and whose evidence we will only ever read in summary. Ever since his allegations emerged a couple of years ago, those who have met him speak of an extraordinarily convincing young man.
Two of the three judges agreed. They did not doubt his evidence: “[He] was a very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.” Pell’s failure is set out in hundreds of pages of judicial prose but it’s really as simple as this: most of the judges believed his accuser.
Filling the court were supporters of Pell, as well as survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates. Survivors gripped each other’s hands as Ferguson continued, saying that she and Maxwell “accepted the prosecution’s submission that the complainant was a very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of the truth”.
“Throughout his evidence, the complainant came across as someone who was telling the truth,” Ferguson said. “He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution. As might have been expected, there were some things he could remember and many things which he could not. And his explanations of why that was so had a ring of truth.”
The truth was that Pell sexually assaulted two choirboys in the priest’s sacristy after Sunday solemn mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996. Pell orally raped one of the boys during this incident and indecently assaulted both of them. Pell offended a second time against one of the boys one month later, when he grabbed the boy’s genitals in a church corridor, once more after Sunday solemn mass. He was convicted by jurors on four counts of an indecent act with a child under the age of 16 and one count of sexual penetration with a child under the age of 16. By the time the complainant spoke to police in June 2015, the other victim had died from an accidental heroin overdose at the age of 30. His father shed tears as the appeal was dismissed.
Ferguson read a summary of her reasons, before the full reasons – spanning 300 pages – were released to journalists. But after reviewing some 30 hours of testimony from the trial, reviewing 2,000 pages of transcript, and examining the robes Pell wore while he was archbishop of Melbourne, Maxwell and Ferguson found it was fair that jurors had concluded they believed the complainant. In his dissenting judgment, Weinberg concluded that the complainant’s evidence contained discrepancies. But in an appeal, only two of the three judges need to agree.
What now for Pell’s defenders? Do they enrol Ferguson and Maxwell among all the other conspirators, the journalists and police they accuse of being in cahoots to turn Pell into a figure so hated no jury could ever fairly judge him?
Surely not. But some will no doubt try. Around the world they argued the real jury was the first jury, not the one that convicted him but the one that couldn’t make up its mind. Now they have already begun dismissing the majority decision of the court of appeal in favour of Weinberg’s dissent – the real verdict that would have set Pell free.
“Hallelujah – proof there is a God,” a victim advocate yelled outside of the court once Pell had been escorted from the building. Survivors of abuse expressed shock that the victim had received justice because they had seen so many cases before where victims had not been believed, or whose cases had never made it to court. That a cardinal had been held to account – once one of the most powerful men in the Vatican – was profound.
Chrissie Foster, whose daughters Emma and Katie were raped by the Melbourne priest Kevin O’Donnell while they were at a Catholic primary school in the 1980s, said the dismissal of Pell’s appeal showed society’s understanding of child sexual abuse had reached a point where being powerful did not offer the protection it once did.
“What a result – it is almost unbelievable,” she told reporters. “I was not expecting this. I went to all of the second trial and I could see it [that the abuse had happened] and I just hoped the jury could see it. And they did. It was forensically argued and debated. Now again. I’m amazed. So often these cases hardly any victims come forward. This is a crime fraught with not getting a guilty verdict.”
Before the court doors opened on Wednesday morning people lined up before 7am despite the cold and the drizzle to ensure they would secure a seat in the courtroom. An overflow room was needed to accommodate people. Pell supporters and victim advocates clashed on the court stairs, exchanging heated words. Advocates held up placards. One man had drawn a large portrait of Pell wearing prison stripes, and held it up for those in line to see. After the decision had been delivered and people spilled out of the court shortly after 10am, the Pell supporters dissipated. Only survivors and their supporters were left, taking in what had occurred.
Ferguson and Maxwell had dismissed all 13 “obstacles” to Pell committing the crime that his lawyer’s had put forward. One of the arguments was that Pell’s archbishop robes were too heavy to be manoeuvred for Pell to expose his penis. Not so, said Ferguson. The three appellant judges held the robes and picked them up. Ferguson said: “The robes were not so heavy or immovable as [witnesses] suggested.”
It may not have been Pell’s last chance at acquittal. He can still appeal to the high court, and in a statement, Pell’s spokeswoman said his legal team would thoroughly examine the judgment in order to determine whether a special leave application to the high court would be made.
But his appeal before the supreme court had been his best chance at acquittal. The high court has a much higher bar to meet before an appeal will be heard. Shortly after 11am, the complainant who brought Pell to justice released a statement read out by his lawyer, Viv Waller.
“You wouldn’t know my name,” his statement said. “I am not a champion for the cause of sexual abuse survivors, although I am glad those advocates are out there. But that is not my path.
“After attending the funeral of my childhood friend, the other choirboy, I felt a responsibility to come forward. I knew he had been in a dark place. I was in a dark place. I gave a statement to the police because I was thinking of him and his family.
“I would like to acknowledge my friend who passed away, the other choirboy, and pay my deep respect to him and to his family. I would like to acknowledge the courage of those people who reported to the police. For one reason or another, your cases were not advanced. My heart goes out to you.”
Many of Pell’s supporters stood outside the court after the verdict looking shellshocked in the sunlight. This was not as they – or indeed so many in the court – imagined things would turn out.
The reaction from survivors was swift but the Vatican is yet to respond. Pell, the one-time financial manager of the Vatican and confidante to the Pope, who many believed would be in the running for the supreme pontiff title one day, still holds his cardinal title. The Vatican has said all along it would await the outcome of the appeal before weighing in.
Pell will now likely be transferred from Melbourne Assessment Prison to one of the country jails where Victoria houses its paedophiles. He will know so many of the priests and brothers there.
Pell walked into and out of the court a guilty man. But in a statement the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher said Pell continued to maintain his innocence.
"I pray for and will continue to support survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy... I again say how sorry I am that you were harmed by people you should have been able to trust. I am conscious how you and your loved ones have had to live with the consequences of abuse for a lifetime."
The Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, says the organisation accepts the ruling.
Edited from The Guardian and intl. media reports
Edited from The Guardian and intl. media reports