Melbourne: Disgraced Cardinal George Pell was sent back to jail on Wednesday after an Australian court quashed the most senior Catholic cleric’s appeal against convictions for child sex abuse, a landmark decision cheered by the victims and welcomed by the Prime Minister.
Once the Vatican’s third-ranking official, Pell, 78, will continue his six-year sentence for sexually assaulting two 13-year-old choirboys at a Melbourne cathedral in the 1996 when he served as Archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell, who was sentenced in March to six years in prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months, appealed the guilty verdict in June on grounds that the jury had reached an unreasonable verdict.
Last December, a jury unanimously convicted Pell of sexually abusing the boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Pell orally raped one of the boys during the incident and had indecently assaulted both of them.
The former top aide of Pope Francis will now consider a final appeal in the nation’s highest court.
Cardinal Pell’s legal team argued that the evidence given in the trial supplied him with a “real alibi” and it was “physically impossible” for the Cardinal to have committed the offences he was convicted of. His defence team had argued that during the appeal hearing there were 13 reasons why the offending was “impossible”.
One of those reasons was that Pell’s robes were too heavy to be moved aside to commit the sexual acts he was convicted of.
The three Court of Appeal judges dismissed the plea rejecting majority of the 13 reasons.
The judges also unanimously dismissed two other grounds of appeal which argued that there were errors in the way the trial was run.
Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell dismissed the appeal while Justice Mark Weinberg upheld that appeal ground.
Ferguson and Maxwell agreed it “was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt Cardinal Pell was guilty as charged”.
“Justice [Chris] Maxwell and I accepted the prosecution’s submission that the complainant was a compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth,” Chief Justice Ferguson said.
“Throughout his evidence the complainant came across as someone who was telling the truth,” she said.
However, Justice Weinberg said he was not convinced by the victim’s evidence and could not exclude the possibility that some parts of the former choirboy’s testimony were “concocted”.
He has 28 days to seek special leave to appeal in the High Court.
Pell’s surviving victim said he was “grateful for a legal system that everyone can believe in”.
“My journey has not been an easy one. It has been all the more stressful because it involved a high-profile figure,” he said in a statement read by his lawyer.
A lawyer for the father of the second victim, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, said he felt “a weight had been lifted”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested that Pell was likely to lose his Order of Australia honour as a result of the court outcome.
Morrison said his sympathies were with the victims across Australia.
“The courts have done their job, they’ve rendered their verdict. And that’s the system of justice in this country and that must be respected,” he said.
“Of course, my understanding is that this would result in the stripping of the honours that are decided externally to the Government, that is a process that is done independently and that of course will now follow,” he said.
In 2005, Pell became a Companion of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the Catholic Church.
Governor-General David Hurley in a statement has indicated that no action would be taken until any appeal by Pell to the High Court had been decided.
Pell’s lawyer said he was “disappointed” with the decision and maintained his innocence.