Law Updates

By Peter Woodhouse


High Court quashes Pell’s convictions and acquits of all charges

In one of the most awaited decisions in Australian legal history, the High Court of Australia, by a unanimous decision of all 7 judges, have today quashed the convictions of Cardinal George Pell and ordered his immediate release from custody.  Whatever hymn sheet you sing from, it doesn’t get closer to complete vindication for Pell.

Court’s reasons are logical and quite simple – embarrassingly so for the majority in the Victorian Court of Appeal. In short, the High Court found that the verdicts were unreasonable and could not be supported by the evidence.

At Pell’s trial, the Court heard from a number of ‘opportunity witnesses’ who suggested the alleged offences could not have happened because there was virtually no opportunity for them to have occurred, given the practise of Mass at the Cathedral each Sunday, including the habits and traditions of church officials.

The High Court considered that, while the Court of Appeal majority assessed the evidence of the opportunity witnesses as leaving open the possibility that the complainant’s account was correct, their Honours’ analysis failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the Pell’s guilt.

The unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant’s version and described:

  • Pell’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass;
  • the established and historical Catholic church practice that required that Pell, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral; and
  • the continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass.

The Court held that, on the assumption that the jury had assessed the complainant’s evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable, the evidence of the opportunity witnesses nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the Pell’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.

The Court concluded there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.