Further imprisonment or acquittal?

Further imprisonment or acquittal?

Cardinal George Pell © Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

He is the highest-ranking Catholic official ever convicted of abuse. But Australian Cardinal George Pell also always insisted on his innocence. On Tuesday, once again, everything is at stake for him.

This Tuesday, the final verdict in the case of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted of child abuse, will be delivered. The Supreme Court in Brisbane will decide whether to keep the 78-year-old in prison for six years or acquit him for lack of evidence. Nearly two years ago, the former high-ranking aide to Pope Francis was put on trial on five counts of child sexual abuse.

Australia's highest-ranking Catholic church official at the time was found guilty by a jury in December 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996 as Melbourne's archbishop after a high mass at the cathedral. One he allegedly coerced into oral sex, the other sexually molested. The jury also considered it proven that Pell assaulted one of the boys again a few weeks later. In February 2019, the cardinal was sentenced to six years in prison, which can be suspended after three years and eight months.

Last resort

After two of the three judges in an appeals court upheld Pell's conviction in August 2019, the High Court trial is the 78-year-old's last chance at life in freedom. During a two-day hearing before the final court in March, Pell's lawyer Bret Walker argued that the jury in the trial of his client based its guilty verdict solely on the victim's testimony and disregarded exculpatory testimony. In addition, the playing of the video with the victim's testimony was not legally admissible in the appeal proceedings.

The man who stated in the trial that he had been assaulted by Pell more than 20 years ago during his time as archbishop in the vestry of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne to have been sexually abused, had made his statement in camera. The second alleged victim had died of a heroin overdose shortly before the trial.

Outcome of the procedure uncertain

Legal experts and media in Australia dare not make predictions about the outcome of the trial, although observers gave high marks to Pell's defense team after the two-day hearing in the High Court. The most likely outcome is that the judges will either overturn the conviction or reject the appeal, and the cardinal will thus remain in custody. But another option is also conceivable: according to experts, the court could uphold the verdict against Pell in some of the five cases and overturn it in others – and possibly refer the case back to the appeals court for a retrial.

In any case, the announcement of the decision on Tuesday morning Australian time by Judge Susan Kiefel will only take a few minutes. Only a handful of people will be present at the sentencing in the Brisbane courtroom because of the ban on meetings in the wake of the Corona pandemic.

New accusations

Meanwhile, two men made new allegations of abuse against Pell last week. In an extensive interview with the Australian broadcaster ABC, they stated that they had been sexually abused by him in an orphanage in Ballarat and in a swimming pool respectively. Pell served as a young priest in the 1970s in the Ballarat diocese, which emerged as one of the centers of abuse and cover-up during the state abuse commission's investigation of the abuse scandal.

Australian Curia Cardinal Pell had been prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy since 2014, making him a kind of "finance minister" to the pope. Because of the criminal trials against him, he had already been on leave from Pope Francis as chief financial officer since June 2017. Before his time at the Vatican, Pell was archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001) and Sydney (2001-2014). He was a member of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1990 to 2000.

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