All you need to know about George Pell’s appeal

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The Canberra Times0

4 June 2019

At the Melbourne County Court in December last year, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of the historical child sexual abuse of two teenage altar boys while he was Archbishop of Melbourne during the 1990s. The convictions were not made public until February this year due to a ban on media coverage imposed by Chief Judge Peter Kidd.

Pell’s legal team successfully applied for leave to appeal, and the hearing is coming up shortly. Here is a summary of the main questions surrounding the appeal process and its implications.

George Pell ahead of his trial for multiple historical sexual assault charges. Photo by Jason South

George Pell ahead of his trial for multiple historical sexual assault charges. Photo by Jason South

When is the appeal taking place?

The hearing will take place on Wednesday and Thursday next week (June 5 and 6). Although it is a Court of Appeal hearing, it will take place at a larger Supreme Court building in Melbourne to cater for the intense interest. The hearing will take place in front of three judges. They are:

Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, Justice Chris Maxwell, the president of the Court of Appeal and Justice Mark Weinberg.

On what grounds is the appeal taking place?

There are three reasons cited as grounds for an appeal by Pell’s legal team. Firstly, they claim the trial Judge Kidd should have allowed the defence to play a 19-minute video, which they said would show the position of people in the Melbourne cathedral at the time of the offences. The prosecution protested that the jury might view the video as an accurate reconstruction.

Another ground says there was a “fundamental irregularity” because Pell was not arraigned – in other words asked if he pleaded guilty or not guilty – directly in front of the chosen jury.

The other, arguably most serious grounds is that the jury reached an unreasonable verdict.

Read the full legalese below:

1. The verdicts are unreasonable and cannot be supported having regard to the evidence because on the whole of the evidence, including unchallenged exculpatory evidence from more than 20 Crown witnesses, it was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word of the Complainant alone.

2. The Trial Judge erred by preventing the defence from using a moving visual representation of its impossibility argument during the closing address.

3. There was a fundamental irregularity in the trial process because the accused was not arraigned in the presence of the jury panel, as required by sections 21 0 and 21 7 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009.

What will happen if grounds are upheld?

The video and arraignment grounds are considered technicalities. If upheld, a retrial is likely. If the first grounds of “unreasonable verdict” is upheld, the verdict would be overturned and Pell would be released.

What he would do subsequently is open to question. There is now no official position for him at the Vatican after his five-year tenure as Secretariat for the Economy came to an end last year.

Who is leading the appeal?

Bret Walker SC, who is based in Sydney and has a reputation as an appeal expert, will lead the process. Pell’s high-profile defence counsel Robert Richter QC is still involved in the legal proceedings, but is not leading them.

Will there be much new to come out of the appeal?

There is unlikely to be any fresh evidence regarding the trial submitted during the appeals hearing. However, the defence legal team will be given an opportunity to expand on their grounds to appeal, while the prosecution will be given the chance to respond. The Appeals Court judges are also likely to interrogate the legal teams during the hearing.

Can we find out what happens at the appeals hearing?

Yes. The hearing takes place in open court, which means it can be reported. There will be an extremely high level of media interest.

The hearing will also be broadcast live on the Supreme Court website.

Will George Pell be there?

It is unsure whether George Pell will be there in person, but it is highly likely he will be following proceedings personally, possibly via video link from where he is currently in custody.

What are the likely outcomes?

The Office of Public Prosecutions website outline three possibilities for an appeal hearing. They are that judges:

  1. Give a decision and the reasons for it on the day of the hearing
  1. Give a decision on the day of the hearing and give reasons a later date
  1. Reserve a decision and the reasons for it until a later date.

However, the decision on whether the appeal is upheld or dismissed is unlikely to be made public next week, particularly given the high-profile nature of the case.

It is possible a date for the decision will be set in advance. Sometimes the appeals process can take months. However, the most likely outcome is a decision a few weeks after the hearing, most likely before the end of June.

See the Office of Public Prosecutions website for more details.

What is the effect of the appeal hearing likely to be for survivors?

Given the intense public interest and coverage the hearing is likely to generate, it is likely to be a difficult time for many survivors of historical sexual abuse.

The Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) said there was a surge in the number of calls they received when Pell’s conviction became public knowledge.

Carolyn Worth, a CASA spokesperson, advised: “If it’s really causing you tension, just dig deep and walk away from it.”

Ballarat survivor Peter Blenkiron encouraged anyone who might be affected to get an appointment with a counsellor if possible, or alternatively to check in with their GP – or to use helplines if necessary. “Everybody is going to be different,” he said. “Don’t do it alone. If in doubt, reach out to somebody.”

If the appeal is dismissed, will George Pell retain the title of Cardinal?

While there has been no public statement on the issue, there would be huge pressure on the Vatican to act if the appeal is unsuccessful.

Until this year, no cardinal had ever been defrocked for child sexual abuse. However, there is now a very recent precedent in the USA. Theodore McCarrick, who was the Archbishop of Washington from 2000 to 2006 and later a cardinal, was defrocked in February this year.

Interestingly McCarrick was never convicted of the crime, but allegations of historical sexual abuse dating back to the early 1970s were found to be “credible and substantiated” by a New York church panel.

Watch: George Pell’s interview under caution in Rome:

What about buildings named after him?

Different institutions have taken different approaches. St Patrick’s College in Ballarat crossed out Pell’s name on its board of honour and changed the name of one of its historic buildings as soon as the conviction became public knowledge.

However the Australian Catholic University has not changed two buildings named after Pell, including the Pell Centre on its Ballarat campus. Its Chancellor John Fahey said: “Institutions should not adopt final positions in criminal cases until the independent judicial process is complete.”

St Patrick’s College said it would not make any further comment until the legal process was concluded.

What are the implications for the redactions from the Royal Commission report?

Again, it will depend on the outcome of the appeal. While Royal Commission findings were published in 2017, some details were redacted due to ongoing legal matters.

Passages from Case Study 28, which focused on Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat, were hidden. Redactions relating to Pell are thought to relate to his role on the Consultors Committee, which advised bishops on administrative matters including priest appointments, as well as the way he handled direct complaints of child abuse.

The Attorney-General’s office said “Un-redacted reports of the Royal Commission cannot be released until the relevant state or territory authorities have confirmed that all relevant legal matters have been finalised, including relevant appeals.”

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