George Pell’s last stand

Mar 18, 2020 • 13m 45s

Last week the High Court heard George Pell’s appeal against his conviction for child sex abuse. Today, Rick Morton discusses Pell’s last bid for freedom and what could happen next.



George Pell’s last stand

184 • Mar 18, 2020

George Pell’s last stand


From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

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But first..

One year ago, George Pell was sentenced to six years jail for the sexual abuse of two Melbourne choirboys.

Last week, he appealed against that decision in the High Court - and a judgement is still pending.

Today - Rick Morton on the final bid for George Pell’s freedom.


Rick, can you tell me what happened in the high court last week?


Yeah. I went to the High Court for two days, for the two days of hearings to determine whether George Pell, Cardinal George Pell, the most senior ranking Catholic in the world to have been charged with child sex offences, would have his appeal granted, essentially meaning whether he will walk free from jail or have it confirmed and stay there until he's eligible for parole.


Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.


So, this was his final chance for freedom, really. So it all came down to these two very intense days of legal argument.


So Pell's lawyers are arguing that his convictions for child sexual abuse should be overturned. Rick, can you take me back and remind me of the details of that case?


What happened was, there are two days in 1996, late 1996, where George Pell had just started his official duties as archbishop of Melbourne. And there's a Sunday solemn mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. And he presides over mass, he doesn't say it. He presides over it. And then as the mass ends, the altar servers, the mitre carrier, the crosier carrier, the priests, and the archbishop all file out of the church. Now, there are choirboys in that procession, and the two of those choirboys are the victims in this case

At some point during that procession filing out of the cathedral, the choirboys have separated and they've gone over to the priest sacristy - basically a room where the priest gets ready for mass.

Now, ordinarily, nobody else is allowed in that sacristy, but the door was unlocked. And these two choirboys go in there and they kind of just having a look around. They find some altar wine and start drinking it. And then not long after they get in there, George Pell is said to have come into the sacristy where he has abused - sexually - the boys.


Ok and so George Pell was convicted on five charges - one of sexually penetrating a child and four of an indecent act with a child. He’s tried to appeal against that once already in the Victorian Court of Appeal - that wasn’t successful, and so now his lawyers have taken the case to the High Court.


Yeah. There were actually two trials in this case, and the first one ended with a hung jury. They just could not decide on guilt one way or the other in August 2018.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“After years of speculation, Cardinal George Pell was tried over historic child sex abuse charges. That trial came back with a hung jury.”


So there was a retrial and that led to Pell being convicted on five counts of child sexual sexual abuse of those two boys.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“We begin in Melbourne with the shocking news Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, has been found guilty of child sex offences.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified reporter:

“Cardinal George Pell has been convicted on five counts of child sexual abuse. The third highest ranked Catholic in the world, now convicted of these crimes.”


And he was sentenced not long after that to six years in prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months where he still is. As we speak.


Rick I’m interested to know what it was like in the High Court - you were there, can you describe it to me?


I've covered a few high court hearings now, and I was sitting next to a lawyer during the first day. And the room is normally packed with a few kind of older local residents in Canberra who want to go to the court for the afternoon and see what's going on. On this day. It was almost jam packed with lawyers and barristers and other QC who decided to just be like, well, this is a huge case, let's go along and have a look.

So it had the air of theatre. All of these lawyers, kind of whispering and commenting to each other, so you know, it was this crazy atmosphere. And you kind of almost forget that there is a legal case behind it all that has profound implications for not just the man involved, George Pell, but for society. Because either way, the argument that kicks off once this court decision is handed down is going to be brutal, I think.

You go into this giant room and it's got these enormous ceilings, it feels very much like an old kind of prothenium in a way. And you've got the seven high court justices up there on the bench and essentially two lawyers, with all of their helpers but they never, never speak. And Bret Walker - he’s widely regarded as one of the best silks in Australia

And you could tell that he was under a lot of pressure because, you know, he had the weight of Catholic institutional expectation upon his shoulders,

And then you've got Kerri Judd, who's the director of the DPP in Victoria. And, she was put under a lot of pressure by the justices, because they were picking holes in her theories left, right and centre. I mean, she was berated for not taking them through the evidence efficiently at many points. At many points they would just basically say: “Miss Judd, could you please tell us what you’re saying? Can you just answer the question?”


And so what is it that the high court is actually deciding on here?


The high court is not there to relitigate the trial. You know, they are not a criminal court in that sense, and they're not there to retest the evidence. In order to win an appeal, or to win any case in the high court, you have to demonstrate an error of law, or a kind of faulty reasoning in the operation of law. And so, they're essentially testing whether the majority of the Court of Appeal in Victoria were correct in their backing of the jury. And in order to do that they also have to show that the jury were defective in their reasoning.

And you know it all comes down to the fact that they're saying the jury rendered an unsafe verdict. And in law, most juries should be believed all the time, right? Unless you can prove that they were acting irrationally, and that they did not give due consideration to all of the evidence.

And that is Pell’s case in a nutshell; that they gave undue influence, and in so doing, the Court of Appeal backed them up, to the weight of the testimony of the one surviving victim, who gave evidence and was widely considered to be so compelling and so genuine in his trauma and his recollection, that that alone won the case against George Pell.

And so Pell's team now have to show that there was so much other evidence that should have raised the bar for doubt and did not.


We’ll be back in a moment.



Rick, we're talking about George Pell appealing against his child abuse conviction in the high court. Talk me through exactly what Pell's defence is arguing?


This whole situation is really about a fundamental confusion of the facts.

The key argument is, was George Pell on the West steps at St. Patrick's Cathedral for more than 10 minutes, and both Pell’s defence and the prosecution agree that if Pell was on those steps greeting parishioners as they left mass for more than 10 minutes, he could not have committed the offences in the priest sacristy, because it takes time to get there.

And then also the now infamous theory of whether he could have committed the offences while robed in these quite dramatic and intricate archbishop's robes.

And so the defence are essentially saying, you have inverted the burden of proof. Because it might not be impossible for all of those things to happen - in fact, it may be quite likely that some of them did happen the way the prosecution wants - but that is still a bit of a stretch according to them.


So the question is not whether it was possible for Pell to have committed this crime - but that the jury should have found it highly improbable?


The jury saw all of this evidence, right? So they had all of the testimony, they had the witnesses or the complainants evidence on camera, they had the archbishop's robes in the jury room so they could try them on; all of this has been through the court. So essentially, Pell's team are arguing that the Court of Appeal did not give due consideration to the whole of the evidence, because the jury must have been acting irrationally if they were so sure that they could convict.

There's another element. Because the Court of Appeal actually had the complainant's video recording of his evidence, they watched it twice. And it's a very kind of arcane legal point here: only juries in the criminal system are able to determine demeanour of witnesses, how they look, act, behave to determine their credibility. And juries alone have that right. Now, Pell’s team argued that because the Court of Appeal watched those videos twice, they may have been trying to usurp the power of the jury in coming to their own determination.


So, Rick, when will a decision be made and what will it mean for Pell either way?


We could get a decision from the high court at the end of next week, particularly if they think that they're going to acquit. Because if that's what they're going to do, then they don't want to wait, because in that case, they agree that an innocent man has gone to jail.
If it's more complicated and there is a wait time of more than next week, then things are a little bit more complicated.
But essentially what they can do, they can accept the appeal and deal with it in the high court there and then, which means that George Pell would walk free immediately.
Or they can reject it out of hand. And George Pell has exhausted all of his legal avenues for appeal, in which case he will remain in jail until he at least reaches his parole period in 2022.


Rick, thanks so much for talking to me today.


Thanks, Ruby. It’s a fascinating case.



And an update on the coronavirus outbreak -

The Federal Government says it's taking medical advice on whether it needs to bring in more restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings.

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I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

A year ago, George Pell was sentenced to six years’ jail for the sexual abuse of two Melbourne choirboys. Last week, he appealed against that decision in the High Court and a judgement is still pending. Today, Rick Morton discusses what happened during the final bid for George Pell’s freedom.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

George Pell’s High Court appeal in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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184: George Pell’s last stand