Today the High Court of Australia heard the first day of argument as to whether Cardinal George Pell should be granted special leave to appeal against his convictions.

Why has this case gathered so much attention? 

Cardinal George Pell is Australia’s most senior Catholic figure.

In December 2018, a jury found Pell guilty of five charges of historical child sexual offences and he was sentenced to six years imprisonment.

The offences are said to have been committed against two 13-year old choirboys after a Sunday mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne in the late 1990s, when Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

The second choirboy didn’t give evidence because he died before the matter was reported to police in 2015. Before his death, he had denied ever being abused.

Pell has always maintained his innocence.

What did the Victorian Court of Appeal say?

Following his conviction and sentence, Cardinal Pell’s legal team appealed to the Victorian Court of Appeal.

Pell’s main argument was that the jury’s verdict was unreasonable because the evidence in the trial could not have led to a finding of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

In August 2019, a majority of the Victoria Court of Appeal dismissed Pell’s argument. Chief Justice Ferguson and Justice Maxwell said the complainant “came across as someone who was telling the truth. He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution.”

For this reason, they were satisfied that it was open to the jury to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that Pell was guilty.

What arguments are being made in the High Court?

Pell’s lawyers are trying to convince the High Court that the appeal ruling reversed the onus of proof and required Pell to establish his innocence (rather than requiring the Crown to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt). They are also arguing that there was no opportunity for Pell to commit the offences, meaning the jury’s verdict was unreasonable.

Pell’s lawyers say the convictions should be quashed. If this happens, Pell would be released from gaol immediately.

The Prosecution are arguing that Pell’s appeal glosses over evidence which supports the choirboy’s account. They say the convictions should remain.

What are the possible outcomes?

The hearing will continue tomorrow, though it is unlikely the High Court will make a decision then. It is more likely that a decision will be given in a few months, once the arguments have been properly considered and a written judgment has been prepared.

When the Court does hand down its decision, it will either:

  • refuse special leave to hear the appeal
  • grant special leave but dismiss the appeal
  • grant special leave and allow the appeal (quashing the convictions), or
  • grant special leave and send the case back to the Victorian Court of Appeal for a retrial.

We will keep you updated on further developments in relation to Pell’s High Court appeal.