George Pell’s bid for freedom: high court verdict to decide cardinal's future

Melissa Davey
Photograph: Andy Brownbill/AP

On Tuesday, almost two years after being committed to stand trial on multiple charges of historical child sexual abuse, the case against the former financial controller of the Vatican, Cardinal George Pell, will end with him either walking free or remaining in jail to serve the rest of his sentence.

After failing to appeal to Victoria’s appellate court in August, Pell’s legal team took his case to the high court, the final avenue in his bid for freedom. Across two days in March, the full bench of seven justices heard Pell’s barrister Bret Walker SC argue that Victoria’s appellate judges, who dismissed Pell’s first appeal in 2019 by a majority of two-to-one, may have been unduly influenced by the complainant’s testimony by watching a recorded video of it rather than just reading the transcript of his evidence.

Walker also argued that just because the complainant was believable and compelling, it should not have led jurors to discount other evidence that placed his evidence in doubt. The director of the Office of Public Prosecutions, Kerri Judd, responded by saying that given Pell’s legal team made so much of the complainant’s lack of credibility and believability, Victoria’s appellate court was entitled to watch the video. It did not mean they had elevated it above other evidence, or that they had not given due weight to other evidence from the trial, she said. She added that the entire body of evidence considered together gave weight to the complainant’s account, rather than discrediting it.

Related: George Pell: high court reserves decision on granting special leave for an appeal

Once they return to court on Tuesday the high court bench will immediately deliver its decision as to whether the majority of the seven justices accepts the arguments from Pell’s team and will acquit and release him, or whether the majority dismissed the appeal in which case the guilty verdict will hold and Pell’s opportunities to appeal will have been exhausted.

Because of Covid-19 and travel restrictions, it will be difficult for media and the public to attend the decision even though it is being delivered in an open court. Social distancing requirements mean only a handful of people will be able to be in the court room in Brisbane, where the decision is being delivered. The court is not equipped to provide a livestream of the proceedings.

The judgment delivery itself will be over in a minute or two, with just the orders being read out by the chief justice Susan Kiefel. The judgment summary will then go live on the court’s website, with the bench’s full reasons for their judgement becoming available shortly after.

While there are a few different scenarios that could unfold, including the court granting leave to appeal on only certain convictions and not others, or sending the original appeal back to court to be reconsidered, the most likely scenarios are that the bench will either grant the appeal and quash the conviction, or refuse the appeal, upholding the conviction.

Nothing can be read into the timing of the decision coming just three weeks after the hearing in Canberra – it is impossible to predict what the bench will decide. But once the decision comes and the case is over, the child abuse royal commission will be able to release its redacted report into its findings regarding Pell.

Australia’s child sexual abuse royal commission, a five-year inquiry into abuses of children in institutional settings including religious ones, redacted large sections of its findings relating to Pell when it handed down its final report in 2017, so as not to influence or jeopardise the legal action.

Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, was in December 2018 convicted on five charges. A Melbourne jury found him guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in the priest’s sacristy of St Patrick’s cathedral after Sunday solemn mass when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He then assaulted one of the boys again a few weeks later. Pell is just over one year in to serving a six-year prison sentence, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.