By the Associated Press
An Australian court by a 2-1 majority ruling Wednesday upheld convictions against Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to be found guilty of sexually abusing children.
The Victoria state Court of Appeal rejected Pell’s appeal of the unanimous verdicts a jury had issued in December finding Pope Francis’ former finance minister guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral more than two decades ago.
The abuse occurred months after Pell became archbishop of Australia’s second-largest city and had set the world’s first compensation arrangement for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
His lawyers are expected to appeal the decision in the High Court, Australia’s final arbiter.
Pell is no longer a member of Pope Francis’ council of cardinals or a Vatican official. The Vatican is conducting its own investigation into sex abuse allegations against Pell and is expected to comment on the court’s ruling later Wednesday.
Pell, 78, showed no emotion when Chief Justice Anne Ferguson read the verdict to a packed courtroom but bowed his head moments later. He wore a cleric’s collar but not his cardinal’s ring. Pell had arrived at the court in a prison van and was handcuffed as he was led away by a guard.
Ferguson said she and President of the Court of Appeal Chris Maxwell “decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of the offense charges.”
The two judges “accepted the prosecution’s submission that the complainant was a very compelling witness, clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth,” Ferguson said.
The dissenting, judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, “could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted,” particularly in relation to the charge that Pell had squeezed the boy’s genitals and shoved him against a cathedral corridor wall as they passed in the midst of the choir moments after a Mass, she said.
“Justice Weinberg found that the complainant’s account of the second incident was entirely implausible and quite unconvincing,” Ferguson said.
The witness said the incident in the corridor occurred in early 1997. The charges also alleged in late 1996 that Pell had orally raped the same choirboy and indecently dealt with the boy and his friend in a rear room of the cathedral after catching them swigging altar wine.
Ferguson read a summary of the three judges’ findings. The full findings run more than 300 pages and will be published later Wednesday.
Clerical sexual abuse and the Catholic church’s handling of such cases worldwide have thrown Francis’ papacy into turmoil.
In a little more than a year, the pope has acknowledged he made “grave errors” in Chile’s worst cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile, and a third cardinal, former US church leader Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.
Pell’s lawyers had to prove to the appeals court that the jury must have held a reasonable doubt about his guilt. An earlier trial had ended in a deadlocked jury. An 11-to-1 majority decision to either convict or acquit could have been accepted, but at least two jurors held out.
Prosecutors replied that the evidence of more than 20 priests, choristers, altar servers and church officials showed there were “possible hindrances” to the prosecution case, but did not preclude the jury from being satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of Pell’s guilt.
Pell’s lawyers argue the events in 1996 as described in the prosecution case were “improbable and even impossible” to have happened quickly and in part of the cathedral where altar servers and priests were likely to walk in at any moment.
One of the choirboys, identified by the sentencing judge as J.J., was the key prosecution witness. His friend, identified as M.R., died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31 without ever complaining he had been abused.
The father of the dead choirboy, neither of whom can be named, attended the court hearing on Wednesday, the father lawyer’s Lisa Flynn said before the hearing.
Flynn said a Pell win would be “devastating” for the father, but the father would continue with a civil suit against Pell and the church regardless of the outcome.
“Survivors and victims of child sex abuse all over the world will be watching with bated breath this morning as this decision is handed down,” Flynn told Nine Network television outside court.
“I do think it’s one of the most important legal outcomes for survivors of abuse in recent history and I think that the outcome will have an impact right around the world,” she added.
Pell did not testify at either of his trials. But both juries saw a video of a police interview of him in Rome in 2016 in which Pell rejected the allegations as “absolutely disgraceful rubbish” and a “deranged falsehood.”
When sentencing Pell to six years in prison in March, the trial judge accused Pell of showing “staggering arrogance” in his crimes.
Pell was ordered to serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he was eligible for parole.