CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s highest court on Tuesday will judge Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against convictions for molesting two teenage choirboys more than two decades ago. But the legal battle over the world’s most senior Catholic convicted of sexually abusing children may not end there.
The High Court could deliver Pope Francis’ former finance minister a sweeping victory or an absolute defeat. Or the seven judges could settle on one of several options in between that could extend the appeal process for another year or more.
The 78-year-old cleric cleric has spent 13 months in two high-security prisons at high risk of having a coronavirus outbreak, and he would have strong grounds for being released on bail if the court case is extended.
Pell was sentenced by a Victoria state County Court judge in March last year to six years in prison for sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in a back room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in December 1996 while he was archbishop of Australia’s second-largest city.
Pell was also convicted of indecently assaulting one of the boys by painfully squeezing his genitals after a Mass in early 1997. Pell must serve three years and eight months behind bars before he becomes eligible for parole.
One of the former choirboys died of a heroin overdose in 2014 aged 31. Pell has largely been convicted on the testimony of the survivor, now the father of a young family aged in his 30s, who first went to police in 2015. The identities of both victims are concealed by state law.
A jury had unanimously convicted Pell of all five charges in December 2018, but he was spared prison for three months while he underwent replacement surgery for both knees.
The High Court has examined whether the Victorian Court of Appeal was correct in its 2-1 majority decision in August to uphold the jury verdicts.
Pell’s lawyers hope that the High Court finds that the appeal court made mistakes, acquits Pell and he is freed the same day from the Barwon Prison outside Melbourne where he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell.
Prosecutors have argued that if mistakes were made, the case should be sent back to the appeals court to be heard again — a process that would set Pell back to where he was a year ago.
Melbourne Law School Professor Jeremy Gans, who attended the two-day High Court hearing last month, said a delay in the case’s resolution could encourage Pell to apply for bail, given his relatively short sentence, advanced age, poor health and the COVID-19 risk in prison.
“He’d have a pretty compelling case for bail in these circumstances,” Gans said.
Pell withdrew an earlier bail application without a hearing. Some lawyers suspect he did not want his release on bail to reduce the urgency for overturning the convictions.
Much of the High Court appeal focused on whether the abuses of the two choirboys in the priests’ sacristy could have been committed in a window of only five or six minutes that the evidence suggested Pell had available to him after a Mass.
If the High Court decides there was insufficient time, the judges could acquit him of the oral rape conviction and three convictions for indecency that stem from the sacristy allegations. But the conviction for squeezing the surviving choirboy’s genitals more than a month later could still stand.
Some lawyers regard this as an unlikely scenario, but it would result in Pell being quickly released given the time he has already served.
Even a result at the extremes — Pell is acquitted of all charges or his appeal is entirely dismissed — may not put the case to rest.
Victoria state has abandoned a prohibition against double jeopardy which used to guarantee that no one was tried or punished more than once for the same crime.
The change was made in response to developments in DNA matching which has provided damning new evidence against suspects long after they were acquitted.
If a new witness brought compelling new evidence of either Pell’s innocence or guilt, a new trial could result.
“Nothing is final in Victorian law anymore,” Gans said.
If Pell does win his appeal, he will experience a different kind of freedom in a country locked down by coronavirus than he did three years ago when he voluntarily returned to Melbourne from the Vatican determined to clear his name.