Cardinal George Pell, convicted of abuse, fights for his last legal chance at acquittal. Meanwhile, on the second day of the appeal hearing, however, the prosecution defended the 78-year-old's guilty verdict.
Pell's lawyers painted an "incomplete picture of the facts" and engaged in "whitewashing," prosecutor Kerri Judd told the seven judges of the High Court, Australia's top court, according to Australian media.
Pell had been sentenced a year ago to six years in prison for sexually abusing two choirboys. The jury's guilty verdict and subsequent sentence was based solely on the in camera testimony of one of the victims. The second man had died of a drug overdose shortly before the trial began.
A Melbourne Court of Appeal had upheld the guilty verdict and sentence in August 2019 with a majority of two of the three judges. Pell's lawyers appealed that decision to the High Court. The judges of the Court of Appeal had required Pell to prove his innocence, committing the "legal error" of shifting the burden of proof, lawyers told the High Court on Wednesday.
Allegations of sexual abuse
Pell is accused of sexually abusing two choirboys in the cathedral vestry while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in late 1996. However, many witnesses testified that it had been common practice for Pell to greet attendees on the steps of the cathedral after church services.
In addition, numerous priests and altar servers had been in the sacristy after services. So the accused abuse could not have taken place at all, lawyers said, citing the testimony of Pell's then-master of ceremonies Charles Portelli in the criminal trial. The latter was usually constantly at the archbishop's side at the time.
The question of whether it was at all possible in terms of time for Pell to force the two choirboys to have sex was also a central point in the prosecution's remarks to the High Court.
Prosecutor Judd conceded in the High Court that Portelli's testimony, "taken in isolation," was likely to cast doubt on the allegations. In the "context of the overall evidence," however, doubts are not appropriate.
The High Court proceedings are the cardinal's last chance for acquittal. Australian legal experts believe it may take several weeks to months for judges to announce their decision.
Pell's lawyers had their say
On the first day of the hearing Wednesday, lawyers for the former Vatican finance chief presented to the seven judges of the High Court in Canberra their reasons for appealing against the upholding of their client's conviction by two of the three judges of the Victoria Court of Appeal.
Lawyer Brett Walker had accused the Court of Appeal judges of "flawed legal methods" in his remarks, Australian media reported. Instead of following the legal principle of "in doubt for the accused," they would have demanded that Pell prove his innocence, thus reversing the burden of proof.
Walker accordingly based his remarks on the minority opinion of the third judge of the Court of Appeals. The lawyer went on to explain to the High Court judges that the key statements about what happened after a service at St.-Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral would have cast doubt on how the crime occurred and thus warranted overturning Pell's conviction.
Pell was not present at the High Court hearing. In contrast, a small crowd of friends and opponents alike had gathered for rallies outside the courthouse in Canberra. On posters, some demanded "Pell burn in Hell" – "Pell should burn in Hell" – while others asserted "Pell innocent forever" – roughly, "Pell innocent forever".