Melbourne — An Australian appeals court Wednesday upheld convictions against Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to be found guilty of sexually abusing children. The decision brought cheers from scores of abuse survivors and victims’ advocates demonstrating outside court.
The Victoria state Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 ruling, rejected Pell’s appeal of a unanimous jury verdict in December that Pope Francis’ former finance minister was guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral more than two decades ago.
Pell’s lawyers will examine the judgment and consider an appeal to the High Court, Australia’s final arbiter, his spokeswoman Katrina Lee said in a statement.
“Cardinal Pell is obviously disappointed with the decision today,” the statement said, adding that he maintains his innocence.
But prominent victims advocate Chrissie Foster was quoted by the Reuters news service as telling reporters outside the court that, “We have today in our court, in Victoria, the Supreme Court, saying, ‘We believe the victim and we uphold the jury’s verdict.’ No one is above the law.”
The Vatican issued a statement saying it was “reiterating” its “respect for the Australian judicial system” and it “acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal.”
But “the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court” and “the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue … those members of the clergy who commit such abuse.”
Pell was sentenced to six years in prison in March and is no longer a member of Francis’ Council of Cardinals or a Vatican official.
But Reuters points out that he is still a cardinal in the Catholic church and would still be a priest even if he were to resign as a cardinal. Reuters adds that Pell could be stripped of his priesthood if a special Vatican body looking into his case also finds him guilty.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said soon after the appeal was rejected that Pell would be stripped of his Order of Australia honor.
Pell, 78, showed no emotion when Chief Justice Anne Ferguson read the verdict to a packed courtroom but bowed his head moments later. He wore a cleric’s collar but not his cardinal’s ring. Pell had arrived at the court in a prison van and was handcuffed as he was led away by a guard.
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, a body representing all the nation’s Catholic bishops, said all Australians must be equal under the law and they accept the court’s verdict.
“I respectfully receive the court’s decision and I encourage everyone to do the same,” Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said in a statement.
Clerical sexual abuse and the Catholic Church’s handling of such cases worldwide have thrown Francis’ papacy into turmoil.
In a little more than a year, the pope has acknowledged he made “grave errors” in Chile’s worst cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile, and a third cardinal, former U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.
Explaining the judges’ thinking
Ferguson said she and President of the Court of Appeal Chris Maxwell “decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty.”
The two judges “accepted the prosecution’s submission that the complainant was a very compelling witness, clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth,” Ferguson said.
The dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, “could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted,” particularly in relation to the charge that Pell had squeezed the boy’s genitals and shoved him against a cathedral corridor wall as they passed in the midst of the choir moments after a Mass, she said.
“Justice Weinberg found that the complainant’s account of the second incident was entirely implausible and quite unconvincing,” Ferguson said.
One of the choirboys, identified by the sentencing judge as J.J., was the key prosecution witness. His friend, identified as M.R., died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31 without ever complaining he had been abused. Neither victim can be named.
J.J. said in a statement on Wednesday that he “felt a responsibility to come forward” after attending his friend’s funeral.
“The criminal process has been stressful. The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from,” he said in a statement released by his lawyer.
“I am grateful for a legal system that everyone can believe in, where everybody is equal before the law and no one is above the law,” he added.
The victim said he was relieved by the verdict and, “I just hope that it’s all over now.”
The father of the deceased victim shed tears of relief in the courtroom when Pell’s appeal was denied, his lawyer said.
Lawyer Lisa Flynn said the father had an “extremely tough wait” for the judgment against Pell and the court made the correct decision. “The disgraced cardinal is in the right place behind bars.”
An earlier trial had ended with a deadlocked jury, with at least two jurors holding out for conviction or acquittal. While Pell’s lawyers argued in the appeal that the jury must have had reasonable doubt, the prosecutors said contrasting evidence from more than 20 priests, choristers, altar servers and church officials still did not preclude guilty verdicts.
Detailing the abuse
The abuse occurred months after Pell became archbishop of Australia’s second-largest city and set in motion the world’s first compensation arrangement for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
The victim who testified said the incident in the corridor occurred in early 1997. The jury also concluded that Pell in late 1996 had orally raped the same choirboy and indecently dealt with the boy and his friend in a rear room of the cathedral after catching them swigging altar wine.
Pell did not testify at either of his trials. But both juries saw a video of a police interview of him in Rome in 2016 in which Pell rejected the allegations as “absolutely disgraceful rubbish” and a “deranged falsehood.”
Ferguson read a summary of the three judges’ findings. The 325-page ruling was published later Wednesday.
When sentencing Pell to six years in prison in March, the trial judge accused Pell of showing “staggering arrogance” in his crimes. He was ordered to serve a minimum of three years and eight months before he will be eligible for parole.