Criminal Law

By Satomi Hamon


The Pell Appeal – in a nutshell

Catholic Cardinal George Pell is currently serving a 6-year gaol term for sexually abusing two choirboys when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.

In December 2018, a jury found Pell guilty of sexually abusing the boys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral after a Sunday mass in 1996, and then abusing one of the boys a second time several months later.

At trial, evidence of the sexual abuse came from only one complainant as Pell’s other alleged victim died in 2014 and never made a complaint to his family or police.

Pell pleaded not guilty at trial, but a jury convicted him of one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child.

Pell has maintained his innocence and made an application for leave to appeal against his convictions to the Victorian Court of Appeal. An application for leave to appeal is the formal process of seeking permission for his appeal to be considered by the Court of Appeal. The application for leave to appeal and the appeal itself were argued at the same time over two days (5 & 6 June 2019), which is the Court of Appeal’s usual practice to avoid separate hearings and save time.

Pell’s Grounds of Appeal

Pell argued his convictions should be overturned on three grounds:

  1. The verdicts are unreasonable
    1. Pell argued the verdicts of the jury are unreasonable because it was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word of the complainant alone.
    2. In support of this ground Pell argued that 20 Crown witnesses gave “unchallenged exculpatory evidence”.
  • In order to get up on this ground, Pell must satisfy the Court of Appeal that the jury must have entertained a reasonable doubt. This is a high threshold which will not be met if the Court of Appeal only find they might have reached a different decision to the jury.
  1. The Trial Judge erred by preventing the defence from using a moving visual representation of its impossibility argument during the closing address
    1. Pell’s defence team wanted to play a video animation to the jury in their closing address. It was submitted this animation illustrated their argument that it was impossible Pell was alone in the priest’s sacristy when he was alleged to have abused the boys. The animation consisted of a number of dots moving around a floor plan of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The dots depicted the movements of the many witnesses after Sunday mass.
    2. The Judge did not allow the animation to be played to the jury as “it was based on a degree of speculation and guesswork.” He also said it constituted new evidence, which could not be introduced during a closing address.
  2. There was a “fundamental irregularity” because Pell was not arraigned in the presence of the jury
    1. Sections 210 and 217 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) require an accused person to be arraigned in the presence of the jury panel.
    2. An arraignmentis a court proceeding at which a criminal defendant is formally advised of the charges against him and is asked to enter a plea to the charges.
  • Pell was not asked if he pleaded guilty or not guilty directly in front of the chosen jury.

What will happen if the appeal grounds are upheld?

If the first ground of appeal is upheld and the Court of Appeal does rule that the guilty verdicts are unreasonable, Pell will be acquitted and immediately released from custody.

If, however, the Court of Appeal find that the guilty verdicts were reasonable but accept the second and/or third grounds of his appeal, a new trial could be ordered.

If Court of Appeal is not satisfied of any of the three grounds of appeal then the appeal will be dismissed, and Pell will serve the remainder of his sentence.

When will we know the verdict?

At the conclusion of the appeal, the Court of Appeal reserved its decision and reasons until a later (unspecified) date.

It may be weeks or months before the decision is handed down.