Cardinal George Pell will on Wednesday find out if he has reached the end of the road in fighting his conviction for historical child sexual abuse offences, when the high court decides whether it will grant his legal team special leave to appeal for a final time.
In June Victoria’s court of appeal dismissed the appeal by a majority of two to one, prompting Pell’s lawyers to take the matter to the high court. But there is no automatic right to have an appeal heard.
When the court delivers its decision on Wednesday morning it will do so based on papers alone – that is, neither Pell’s legal team or prosecutors will be present to make oral arguments. If the papers already submitted by Pell’s lawyers have not persuaded the court to hear the appeal, Pell will have no other option but to accept his conviction and remain in jail at least until he is eligible for parole.
If the court does grant leave for the appeal to be heard, a date will be set for Pell’s team led by Bret Walker SC to appear before the judges, most likely next year. High-profile cases are usually determined by a full bench of all seven judges. Any decision of the high court is final and is binding to all Australian courts.
Each justice will make their own decision on the case, providing their own written reasons which will be delivered at a date set after the appeal hearing concludes. Unlike a jury, who in most cases need to reach unanimous decision, cases before the high court are decided on a majority.
Pell was found guilty in December 2018 of sexually assaulting two choirboys in the priest’s sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996 when he was archbishop of Melbourne. Pell was found to have orally raped one of the boys during this incident, which occurred after Sunday solemn mass, and indecently assaulted both of them.
Pell was found to have offended a second time against one of the boys approximately one month later, when he grabbed the boy’s genitals in a church corridor, once again 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.
In their submission to the high court, prosecutors said Pell’s appeal should not be heard because it raised no question of law of public importance. Rather, it invites the court to apply established principles to the facts of the case which were already “carefully and thoroughly” explored by jurors and the majority of the court of appeal.
In their application for leave to appeal, Pell’s lawyers argued the appellant judges should have found the jury must have had a reasonable doubt about any opportunity for Pell to offend against the boys.
Ahead of the decision Dr Cathy Kezelman, the president of the Blue Knot Foundation which supports sexual abuse victims, said the process had been challenging for victims as it could “trigger issues around their own trauma and being believed”.
“If the court refuses the appeal the sentence will stand, for many this will mean that the survivor who provided testimony was believed,” she said.
In Australia, Blue Knot Foundation can be contacted on 1300 657 380 or at www.blueknot.org.au; Bravehearts Inc, which offers counselling and support for survivors and child protection advocacy, can be contacted on 1800 272 831; 1800 Respect is a 24-hour telephone and online crisis support service available on 1800 737 732 or at www.1800respect.org.au; for 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.