MELBOURNE, Australia — An Australian appeals court Wednesday upheld convictions against Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to be found guilty of sexually abusing children, in a decision cheered by scores of abuse survivors and victims’ advocates demonstrating outside the court.
A unanimous jury in December found the cardinal guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral more than two decades ago. The Victoria state Court of Appeal rejected his appeal in a 2-1 ruling, with the court’s chief justice saying the majority found Cardinal Pell’s accuser to be a compelling “witness of truth.”
Cardinal Pell’s lawyers will examine the judgment and consider an appeal to the High Court, Australia’s final arbiter, his spokeswoman Katrina Lee said. “Cardinal Pell is obviously disappointed with the decision,” her statement said.
The Vatican noted Cardinal Pell had always maintained his innocence and had a right to appeal. It said its own investigation into Cardinal Pell would await the outcome of any final appeal in Australia.
“… the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse,” according to a Vatican statement, adding it respected the Australian judicial system.
The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference said all Australians must be equal under the law and it accepted the verdict.
“I respectfully receive the court’s decision and I encourage everyone to do the same,” Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said in a statement.
Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison in March and is no longer a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals or a Vatican official. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said soon after the appeal was rejected that Cardinal Pell would be stripped of his Order of Australia honor.
Pell, 78, showed no emotion when Chief Justice Anne Ferguson read the verdict to a packed courtroom but bowed his head moments later.
Ferguson said she and President of the Court of Appeal Chris Maxwell “decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty.”
The two judges “accepted the prosecution’s submission that the complainant was a very compelling witness, clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth,” Ferguson said.
The dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, “could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted,” particularly in relation to the charge that Cardinal Pell had fondled the boy and shoved him against a cathedral corridor wall as they passed in the midst of the choir moments after a Mass, she said.
“Justice Weinberg found that the complainant’s account of the second incident was entirely implausible and quite unconvincing,” Ferguson said. The full, 325-page ruling was published after she summarized the court’s findings.
One of the choirboys, identified by the sentencing judge as J.J., was the key prosecution witness. His friend, identified as M.R., died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31 without ever complaining he had been abused. Neither victim can be named.
J.J. said he felt a responsibility to come forward after attending his friend’s funeral. “The criminal process has been stressful. The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from,” he said in a statement released by his lawyer.
The victim said he was relieved by the verdict and, “I just hope that it’s all over now.”
An earlier trial had ended with a deadlocked jury, with at least two jurors holding out for conviction or acquittal. While Cardinal Pell’s lawyers argued in the appeal that the jury must have had reasonable doubt, the prosecutors said contrasting evidence from more than 20 priests, choristers, altar servers and Church officials still did not preclude guilty verdicts.
The victim who testified said the incident in the corridor occurred in early 1997. The jury also concluded that Pell in late 1996 had abused the same choirboy and indecently dealt with the boy and his friend in a rear room of the cathedral after catching them swigging altar wine.
Cardinal Pell did not testify at either of his trials. But both juries saw a video of a police interview of him in Rome in 2016 in which Cardinal Pell rejected the allegations as “absolutely disgraceful rubbish” and a “deranged falsehood.”