Cardinal Pell Appealing Guilty Verdict to High Court

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by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  August 27, 2019   

Pell: 'The only judgment I fear is the last one'

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CANBERRA, Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - Cardinal George Pell will make his final appeal before the High Court of Australia in Canberra.

Sources close to Pell are telling Australian media the cardinal will be petitioning Australia's highest court to review a split decision rendered last week by the appeals court in Victoria that upheld his conviction. If the court grants Pell leave to appeal, it will be Pell's final chance to overturn his controversial conviction of clerical sex abuse.

The victim alleged the abuse took place in 1996 at St. Patrick's Cathedral while Pell was archbishop of Melbourne. The current archbishop of Melbourne, Abp. Peter Comensoli, is being grilled for saying he thinks Pell is innocent. During an interview one day after last week's ruling, Comensoli was asked if he personally believed that Pell was guilty.

"I believe in what he said to me, on many occasions, that he's innocent and I continue to be really quite shocked with all of how things are developed," affirmed Comensoli.


 

Comensoli went on to say that he believes the victim had mistakenly identified Pell as the perpetrator. Labor senator Kristina Keneally, herself a Catholic, lambasted Comensoli for his remarks.

"It's distressing for so many reasons," asserted Keneally on Sunday.

Keneally was also upset with Comensoli for saying he would not break the seal of confession to report sex abuse.

"Here we have an archbishop just declaring he is going to break the law rather than report a child sexual abuse that is revealed to him in the confessional," Keneally said.

Another Catholic who is questioning the lower court's ruling that upheld Pell's conviction is conservative pundit and papal biographer George Weigel. Writing for First Things on Wednesday, Weigel points out the glaring lack of evidence that had supposedly proven Pell was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He notes that Chief Justice Anne Ferguson kept referring last week to "the whole of the evidence."

"But there has never been any 'evidence' that Cardinal Pell did what he was alleged to have done. There was only the word of the complainant, and there was absolutely no corroboration of his charges," asserts Weigel.

"Why is it simply assumed, on the basis of his videotaped testimony," adds Weigel, "that the complainant has a clear memory of what he alleged to have happened — especially when the entire scenario of the alleged abuse is implausible in the extreme?"

Another person asking similar questions is Justice Mark Weinberg, who alone ruled last week in favor of Pell's innocence contrary to the majority ruling by Ferguson and the other justice.

In his dissenting opinion, Weinberg wrote, "An unusual feature of this case was that it depended entirely upon the complainant being accepted, beyond a reasonable doubt, as a credible and reliable witness. Yet the jury were invited to accept his evidence without there being any independent support for it."

Writing in February after the second trial convicted Pell, Weigel laid out the reasons why the accusations against Pell are so "implausible."

Their evidence, if accepted, would lead inevitably to acquittal.

"During the retrial," relates Weigel, "the defense demonstrated that, in order to sustain the charge that Pell had accosted and sexually abused two choirboys after Mass one Sunday, ten improbable things would have had to have happened and all within ten minutes":

  • Archbishop Pell abandoned his decades-long practice of greeting congregants outside the cathedral after Mass.
  • Pell, who was typically accompanied by a master of ceremonies or sacristan when he was vested for Mass, entered the carefully controlled space of the vesting sacristy alone.
  • The master of ceremonies, charged with helping the archbishop disrobe while removing his own liturgical vestments, had disappeared.
  • The sacristan, charged with the care of the locked sacristy, had also disappeared.
  • The sacristan did not go back and forth between the sacristy and the cathedral sanctuary, removing missals and Mass vessels, as was his responsibility and consistent practice.
  • The altar servers, like the sacristan, simply disappeared, rather than helping the sacristan clear the sanctuary by bringing liturgical vessels and books back to the sacristy.
  • The priests who concelebrated the Mass with Pell were not in the sacristy disrobing after the ceremony.
  • At least 40 people did not notice that two choirboys left the post-Mass procession.
  • Two choirboys entered the sacristy, started gulping altar wine and were accosted and abused by Abp. Pell — while the sacristy door was open and the archbishop was in full liturgical vestments.
  • The abused choirboys then entered the choir room, through two locked doors, without anyone noticing, and participated in a post-Mass rehearsal; no one asked why they had been missing for 10 minutes.

The actual people around Pell involved in these above scenarios are called opportunity witnesses, and many testified on Pell's behalf. Weigel asked in his Wednesday article why their testimony was so easily dismissed:

Judge Ferguson also referred to the "uncertain memory" of the "opportunity witnesses" who testified on the cardinal's behalf, to the effect that the acts of sexual abuse alleged to have been committed simply could not have happened given the circumstances of a cathedral full of people, the brief time frame of the alleged acts, and the cardinal's vesture.

The first jury trial in October listened to the above evidence and exonerated Pell. Witnesses attending the trial said the jury voted 10-2 in favor of Pell's acquittal. In his dissenting opinion, Weinberg said such testimony would have exonerated Pell.

"All of these witnesses were important," added Weinberg, "but there were some whose evidence was critical. It can fairly be said that their evidence, if accepted, would lead inevitably to acquittal."

Weigel points out Pell is ultimately looking toward an even higher court for his exoneration, namely, the divine tribunal.

"Cardinal Pell has said to friends in recent months," wrote Weigel, "that he knows he is innocent and that 'the only judgment I fear is the last one.'"

 

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