MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia - The Australian High Court will hear an appeal of a decision in August by the Court of Appeal of Victoria, which in a 2-1 ruling upheld the conviction of Cardinal George Pell.
Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic to face child abuse charges, was convicted in December last year of sexually abusing two 13-year old choirboys more than twenty years ago when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne.
The conviction, which was considered by the Victorian Court of Appeal, has divided Australia.
The principal concern is that the entire case against the Cardinal is based on the testimony of one man. Now approximately 36 years old, the man claims he and another man were confronted by Pell after Mass in December 1996. The man said he and his companion, who died before the surviving man went to police with his complaint, had wandered off after singing in the choir at Mass and had found their way to the priest's sacristy where they had found altar wine and were drinking it. They say Pell, still wearing his robes after saying Mass for the first time since becoming archbishop, confronted them, pushed his robes aside and somehow produced his penis and asked one of the boys to suck on it. The man said he then asked the other boy to undress and fondled his genitals while fondling himself.
The man, according to two of the 3 Victorian appeal judges, was a compelling witness who had the ring of truth.
Much criticism was directed at the two judges for the failure to address the truthfulness or otherwise of Pell, whose videotaped interview by Victorian Police was played to them, or of that of the host of witnesses who testified that the possibility of Pell even being alone after Mass was inconceivable. A Master of Ceremonies is designated to be in the company of the archbishop at all times. Other choir members testified they do not recall seeing choir boys 'nicking off' during a procession, saying they would have seen them if they had as the younger boys led the procession. How they found their way to the sacristy was unexplained. The fact that the sacristy is locked until the priest and altar servers return; how the altar wine could be accessed when it is locked in a safe; how Pell got to the sacristy unaccompanied when it was traditional that he would proceed to the front steps of the church and greet parishioners, could not be explained.
Why the most senior Catholic in Australia at the time, and the first Catholic official in the world to propose an avenue for victims of child abuse by clergy to be compensated, and was in the midst of establishing that organization at the time, would engage in sexual activity not with one teenager, but two is considered implausible. With the choir scheduled to practice after Mass and with parents waiting to take the younger ones home, and nothing being said then or in all the years since, there was nothing to support the complainant.
As more and more details of the trial, which was secret, and the unheard testimony of the single complainant becomes known, more and more people including legal entities and academics are questioning not only the conviction, but why Victorian Police sent the case for trial.
It should be noted the Director of Prosecutions did not recommend Pell be charged, the decision was taken by Victorian Police which they stressed when announcing the charges. "Advice was received and sought from the Office of Public Prosecutions, however ultimately the choice to charge Cardinal Pell was one that was made by Victoria Police," Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told a press conference on 29 June 2017. "Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges," he said.
As it was he faced five charges by one complainant. That complainant spoke on his behalf and that of another man who died in 2014. It should be noted that man had twice told his mother he had never been touched by a priest.
At a committal hearing prior to the matter proceeding to court it was revealed Victorian Police had commenced an operation to gather evidence against Cardinal Pell, without any complaints having been made about him. Police told the hearing it was more than a year before they received a complaint. The operation known as Operation Tethering, according to Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan, commenced in March 2013 to ascertain whether Pell had committed crimes which had gone unreported. Advertisements were run in newspapers seeking information about any incidents of sexual abuse at Melbourne Cathedral during Pell's term as archbishop.
"Operation Tethering, that wasn't a 'get Pell' operation was it?" Pell's QC Robert Richter asked Sheridan during the committal hearing.
Detective Superintendent Sheridan replied: "I guess you could term it the way you did but I wouldn't term it that way."
In the end Operation Tethering produced only one complaint that has proceeded to trial. The identity of the single complainant, who was the only witness to the abuse of he and his friend, has never been revealed. In the first trial he did not appear in person, he was beamed by video link from an unknown location. The second trial again did not feature the complainant, or even a live interview. The judge and jury were shown a video of the first 'appearance.'
Nothing is known of the complainant other than what Victorian Police have revealed which is minimal. While he has been cloaked in anonymity, Pell has been subjected to a lynch-mob type reception by the media and the public. Stories of the investigation were leaked to the media, ABC journalist Louise Milligan published lengthy interviews with other complainants about matters which Victoria Police have determined had no legal merit. Milligan also wrote and published a book detailing the allegations of the matters not proceeded with and the story of the men (who one says) were abused by Pell when they were members of the choir.
Pell is now in prison serving a six-years sentence. He will be able to apply for parole after 3 years and eight months.
The High Court of Australia will not hear his appeal until next year. Pell is now 78 years old and in poor health.