Here’s how George Pell may overturn his sex abuse convictions. But there’s a ‘smoking gun’ threat

The High Court will decide on the outcome of George Pell's appeal this week.

The High Court will decide on the outcome of George Pell's appeal this week. Photo: AAP

• Cardinal George Pell was released from prison on April 7, 2020 after the High Court quashed his five convictions for child sexual abuse.

Cardinal George Pell has arrived in court to begin his next major legal fight on Wednesday with the start of an appeal against his conviction over shocking sex attacks on Catholic Church choirboys.

The former treasurer for the Vatican has spent the past 97 days in solitary confinement after being sentenced to six years in prison for violent assaults on two teenage boys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s.

Pell, wearing a black suit and shirt, was escorted into Court 15 by four armed guards as his appeal hearing began.

It was the first time the cleric has been seen in the 12 weeks since he was sentenced and was taken to a segregation unit of the Melbourne Assessment Prison. This time his clerical collar is back on.

  • Read The New Daily‘s in-depth coverage at the Pell Diaries

Fighting for him will be one of the country’s leading barristers, whom the Cardinal hired to aid in his bid to have the conviction quashed.

Sydney-based Bret Walker SC will argue Pell’s case in front of three senior judges: Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, Justice Chris Maxwell – the president of the Court of Appeal – and Justice Mark Weinberg.

Bret Walker SC has represented a number of high-profile clients.

There are three main grounds for the appeal.

Firstly, his team will argue the guilty verdicts on the five charges were “unreasonable” and unsafe as it was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word on the complainant alone.

During the mistrial and re-trial of the case last year only one of the accusers gave evidence, as the other choirboy passed away of a drug overdose aged 30 in 2014. Neither can be named for legal reasons.

The second ground is the argument that the trial judge, Chief Justice Peter Kidd, made an error by preventing the defence from using a video of the “moving visual representation” of its impossibility argument during the closing address by Pell’s lead barrister Robert Richter QC.

The “pac man” animation, as it was dubbed by court reporters covering the case, represented Pell, the choir, altar servers, assistant priests and staff, as moving dots on the background of a map of the Cathedral.

Finally, the third ground for the appeal is the argument that 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 the Criminal Procedure Act.

There is a recent case which may have given Pell hope; just days after he was sentenced in March and told he must serve a minimum three years and eight months before he can apply for parole, a former Christian Brother was set free on appeal.

It came after a jury last year had unanimously ruled that priest John Francis Tyrrell sexually abused a boy at Geelong’s St Joseph’s College in 1965 and 1966.

The conviction relied solely on the memories of the accuser.

The New Daily understands that once the hearing is over, judges will hand down their decision within the fortnight, or even less.

If Pell, who turns 78 on Friday, wins the appeal he could be released immediately It’s possible a re-retrial could be ordered.

Due to the publicity surrounding the high-profile case, however, he may then fight for what’s known as a “permanent stay” and claim it would be impossible to find an unbiased jury.

If he loses the appeal, he may decide to take the case to the High Court.

Pell, whose position as treasurer of the Vatican expired in February, is still expected to face further controversy however, amid the likelihood of what has been described as a “smoking gun” – the release of redacted sections of Case Study 28 in the Royal Commission child abuse final report.

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.

George Pell enters court before sentencing earlier in 2019. Photo: AAP

Jeremy Gans, law professor at the University of Melbourne, told The New Daily it was hard to predict the result of a criminal appeal, but felt Pell had a “good chance” of winning on the unsafe verdict ground.

He said the country’s law on the review of jury verdicts is “very generous”, building on lessons of past miscarriages of justice such as the Lindy Chamberlain case.

“Victoria’s Court of Appeal has overturned jury verdicts on the sole ground that they are unsafe 10 times in the last three years, including seven sexual assault cases,” Mr Gans said.

“I think this case has factors that, in combination, make a successful appeal on this ground likely: The fact that the accuser’s testimony is the sole source of evidence directly implicating Pell.”

Either way, the appeal itself is already igniting strong emotions among survivors who argue is it unfair for the sole word of a victim to be ruled out in historic abuse cases.

Georgie Burg, an abuse survivor who lives near Healesville, Victoria, told The New Daily the appeal would be a difficult time for all those who have endured clergy sexual abuse.

“There’s a feeling that it’s what ‘we’ deserve – if these powerful people are questioning one victim, they’re questioning all victims,” Ms Burg said.

“My concern is for the survivors who have not yet got justice. I hope they reach out and get help and realise people care and, most of all, that they’re not alone.”

Due to the expected huge media interest the matter will be heard in court 15 of the Supreme Court, with an overflow room in place with a live public video stream.

The two-day appeal hearing will be streamed live on the court’s website and can be accessed on the following link.

*Anyone affected by this article can contact Lifeline: 13 11 14

Investigative journalist and writer Lucie Morris-Marr has covered the entire Pell case for The New Daily. Her forthcoming book, Fallen – The inside story of the secret trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell, will be published by Allen & Unwin in September.

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