MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An Australian court said on Thursday that it will rule on an appeal by jailed former Vatican treasurer George Pell against child sex offences on Aug 21.
Pell was sentenced in March to six years in prison after a jury found him guilty of five sexual offences against two 13-year-old choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s, when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell, who strenuously denied the allegations, is the most senior Catholic worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.
What could happen next?
Three judges could decide unanimously, or 2-1, to allow the conviction to stand.
Pell, 78, would then remain in jail until at least October 2022, when he would be eligible for parole.
He would likely be moved from the Melbourne Assessment Prison to a medium security or minimum security prison in western Victoria, where other sex offenders and a number of jailed former priests are held.
The three judges, or 2-1, could overturn the jury’s guilty verdict because they deem it was unreasonable, based on evidence at the trial.
Between 2016 and 2019, up to 11 out of about 40 attempts by defendants to appeal convictions based on an unreasonable jury verdict in Victoria were successful, said Jeremy Gans, a University of Melbourne law professor.
Pell’s lawyers said the prosecution’s case relied entirely on the “uncorroborated evidence” of one surviving complainant.
What is unusual in this case is that the appeal judges were allowed to see a video of the complainant’s testimony and cross-examination, exactly as the jury saw, rather than just reading a transcript, said Matthew Collins, president of the Victorian Bar Council.
The judges had the benefit of seeing and hearing the “tone of voice, facial expression, being able to see the demeanour of the witness, the pace with which the witness speaks, all of these things which as a matter of ordinary human experience affect our assessment of the credibility of the witness,” Collins said.
If the appeals judges decide the jury must have had a reasonable doubt Pell committed the offences, the conviction would be quashed and he would be released immediately. His criminal record would be erased.
The appeal judges could overturn the conviction if they decide the trial judge should not have blocked Pell’s lawyers from presenting a video animation during their closing argument.
Pell’s team wanted to show a video graphic depicting the movements of priests, altar servers and choir boys after mass in the cathedral to illustrate their argument that Pell could not have been alone for several minutes with two boys in the priests’ sacristy shortly after mass as the prosecution argued.
The trial judges were also asked to quash the conviction on the ground that Pell did not make his plea in the physical presence of the jury, but rather by a video link in the court house. Collins said he was unaware of any case where this had been a ground for appeal.
If the court overturns the conviction on either of these two grounds, it could order a retrial, but Collins said it would be difficult for Pell to get a fair trial due to the massive publicity surrounding his conviction.
“It would be unlikely you could find 12 people in Australia who hadn’t heard about what had happened and didn’t have a view about what had happened,” he said.
Whichever way the Court of Appeal rules, the decision is likely to be appealed to the High Court of Australia, which could mean Pell’s fate remains up in the air for several more months, Gans and Collins said.
Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Michael Perry