Court decides on Pell in record time

CARDINAL George Pell may have spent his last night in prison with the state's top court to rule on his appeal against child sex abuse convictions.

Pell, who has spent 176 days in solitary confinement since being jailed in February, is serving a six-year jail term for the sexual assaults of two choirboys in 1996 while archbishop of Melbourne.

But he has vehemently denied any wrongdoing with sources close to his legal team already flagging a High Court challenge if Victoria's Court of Appeal today rules against him.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in February. Picture: AAP
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in February. Picture: AAP

The judgment, to be handed down at 9.30am on Wednesday, has already been touted as "one of the most significant legal decisions in recent history."

As with his sentence and appeal hearing, it will be live streamed online.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson will make some introductory remarks before she, Court of Appeal president Justice Chris Maxwell, and Justice Mark Weinberg announce their decisions.

The Chief Justice will then read out the orders of the court before reading a summary of the court's conclusions.

Only two of the three judges need to agree to either overturn Pell's convictions or let them stand.

Pell was found guilty in December of molesting two St Patrick's Cathedral choirboys, one on two separate occasions, months after being ­appointed Archbishop of Melbourne.

The guilty verdicts came at the end of a retrial after an original jury was unable to reach a majority verdict.

Pell appealed to have the convictions quashed arguing the jury's verdicts were unreasonable when all of the evidence was properly considered.

At an appeal hearing in June his legal team argued the jury could not have been satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Pell was guilty and pointed to "13 solid obstacles in the path of a conviction".

Cardinal George Pell. Picture: AAP
Cardinal George Pell. Picture: AAP

The Court of Appeal could either quash the convictions and set Pell free, order a retrial or dismiss the appeal.

Legal sources say a retrial would be difficult because the publicity surrounding Pell's convictions would make it impossible for him to receive a fair trial.

Pell's trial judge, County Court chief judge Peter Kidd, expressed similar concerns about Pell's ability to receive a fair trial but put measures in place, including a blanket suppression order, ahead of his trials.

If the convictions are quashed, Pell could be released from custody immediately. It is understood authorities are concerned about his safety if that happens.

The Court of Appeal has overturned unsafe jury verdicts in at least seven sexual assault cases in the last three years.


In March it released from jail a former Christian Brother convicted by a jury of sexually abusing a boy in Geelong more than 50 years ago.

As with Pell's case the conviction relied entirely on the memory of the complainant.

The court found that evidence did not derive any relevant support from other evidence in the trial, finding "there were serious discrepancies between his version of the events, and the facts that were conclusively established by the evidence".

Overturning the John Tyrrell convictions, Court of Appeal judges Stephen Kaye, Mark Weinberg and Richard Niall said they were mindful that it was the jury which was entrusted with the responsibility of determining whether the applicant was guilty of the offences with which he was charged.

"However, the law reserves to this court the important responsibility of reviewing the evidence that was put before the jury, and, in doing so, of determining whether, on that evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied, beyond reasonable doubt, of the guilt of the accused,"they said.

"In undertaking that task, it must not be overlooked that the applicable standard of proof ― that of proof beyond reasonable doubt ― is the highest standard in our justice system, and it is a linchpin of our system of criminal justice."

Melbourne University Law School professor Jeremy Gans said whichever way the court ruled, the decision would probably be challenged in the High Court.

"I think it's almost inevitable that the loser of the Court of Appeal decision will challenge it in the High Court," he said.

"If the prosecution loses on the unsafe verdict ground, it will likely appeal on the basis that the test for jury deference in cases where the appeal judges can watch the whole trial needs refinement.





"If Pell loses on that ground, he may make the same argument, though it will be tougher for him, most likely, or just raise the other two grounds … as raising fundamental questions about the trial."

However Prof. Gans said there was no guarantee the High Court would take the case.


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