Cardinal George Pell, one of the highest prelates of the Catholic Church, has been convicted by a jury of child sexual abuse, and is awaiting sentencing.
His defence lawyers have announced an appeal.
Leading commentators and lawyers have questioned the conviction.
Andrew Bolt is a leading Australian commentator on Sky News. He describes himself as an agnostic who says he has met Cardinal Pell on about five occasions. Bolt pointed to how the conviction did not match the evidence.
Cardinal Pell was said to have found two choirboys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral, East Melbourne, drinking altar wine just after Mass. However, evidence presented showed that the wine was locked away and that the choirboys did not have access to the room.
Cardinal Pell was said to have molested both boys whilst fully vested. The evidence was that the vestments could not be parted to allow for the alleged offences to occur.
The attack was supposed to have happened straight after a crowded Sunday Mass, when Cardinal Pell’s custom was to speak to worshipers outside the Cathedral.
The attack is alleged to have happened in the sacristy, a busy place where Cardinal Pell would have known that people would almost certainly walk into the room.
The boys had allegedly slipped away from the choir procession after Mass to enter the sacristy, but none of the other choristers who gave evidence noticed them either leaving or rejoining the procession.
Cardinal Pell was normally accompanied during and after Mass by the master of ceremonies (Monsignor Charles Portelli), who testified that he escorted the then Archbishop from the moment he arrived at the Cathedral to the moment he left. Monsignor Portelli declared the assault was impossible.
Not a single witness, from what was a busy cathedral at the time of the alleged abuse, noticed anything untoward during the estimated 10 minutes of the alleged attack.
There is no history or pattern of similar abuse by Cardinal Pell, unlike the typical pattern of paedophiles. Cardinal Pell was 55 at the time.
Others express concerns
Peter Westmore – former president of the National Civic Council, publisher and regular contributor to the NCC’s News Weekly – attended all public hearings of the two trials of Cardinal Pell. He was interviewed on Andrew Bolt’s Sky News program, The Bolt Report, and on American EWTN television.
Having twice heard the evidence of 25 people brought as witnesses by the Prosecution, Mr Westmore said that not one corroborated the statements of the complainant. He said he was shocked by the guilty verdict and concluded that the “well of public opinion” had been so poisoned that it was not possible for the Cardinal to get a fair trial.
“Coincidentally, two days after Cardinal Pell was convicted on December 11, 2018, Victoria’s attorney-general announced that the State Government was considering the option of judge-only trials of highly prominent people,” Mr Westmore said.
John Silvester, a Walkley-award winning investigative crime writer and columnist with The Age newspaper, expressed his concerns about the conviction in his article “Beyond reasonable doubt: Was Pell convicted without fear and favour?” Silvester wrote: “Pell was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness, without forensic evidence, a pattern of behaviour or a confession. It is a matter of public record that it is rare to run a case on the word of one witness, let alone gain a conviction.”
Jesuit priest and lawyer Fr Frank Brennan wrote in Eureka Street: “There are some who would convict him of all manner of things in the court of public opinion no matter what the evidence. There are others who would never convict him of anything, holding him in the highest regard. The criminal justice system is intended to withstand these preconceptions. The system is under serious strain, however, when it comes to Cardinal Pell.
“The events of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, the federal royal commission, the publication of Louise Milligan’s book, Cardinal, and Tim Minchin’s song, Come Home (Cardinal Pell), were followed, just two weeks before the trial commenced, by the parliamentary apology to the victims of child sexual abuse. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: ‘Not just as a father, but as a Prime Minister, I am angry too at the calculating destruction of lives and the abuse of trust, including those who have abused the shield of faith and religion to hide their crimes, a shield that is supposed to protect the innocent, not the guilty. They stand condemned … on behalf of the Australian people, this Parliament and our government … I simply say I believe you, we believe you, your country believes you.’”
“Such things tend to shift not the legal, but the reputational, burden upon an accused person to prove innocence rather than the prosecution to prove guilt,” Fr Brennan wrote.
At the sentencing hearing on Wednesday, February 28, Cardinal Pell’s legal counsel put to the trial judge that the alleged offending was at the lower end of the scale, describing it as a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case”. This comment was in the context of the sentence hearing, arguing that the Cardinal’s conviction should receive a lighter rather than a lengthier sentence.
It is expected that Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be lodged after the judge hands down his sentence on March 13.