Court upholds convictions against highest-ranking Catholic official jailed on charges of child sex abuse

Aug 21, 2019

By A. Odysseus Patrick

The most senior priest jailed for child abuse in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church failed to convince an Australian court on Wednesday that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Australian Cardinal George Pell will have to continue to serve his six-year jail term for sexually assaulting two choirboys who had sneaked into his changing rooms to drink sacramental wine in Melbourne’s grand St. Patrick’s Cathedral 23 years ago.

In a case that caused bitter division among Catholics, the chief justice of the Victorian Supreme Court, Anne Ferguson, said she was convinced by the evidence of the only living witness: a Melbourne man who had accused the conservative prelate of surprising his younger self and brutally assaulting him in front of a school friend, who was attacked, too.

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15 comments on “Court upholds convictions against highest-ranking Catholic official jailed on charges of child sex abuse

  • 1
    Cairsley says:

    In the Washington Post article, the Chief Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court, in professing herself to have been convinced by the testimony of the one surviving witness, spoke thus:

    “The complainant was a very compelling witness,” Ferguson said in a summary of her judgment that was broadcast live over the Internet. “He was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.”

    This is disturbing. What the chief justice called evidence was no more than the complainant’s testimony, which cannot be taken as reliable evidence for its own veracity.

    Cardinal George Pell does have a case to answer, but it is not the one that has been brought against him in court. It is, however, the case for which he has been convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. The cardinal made many enemies through his arrogant and dismissive approach to sexual crimes against minors committed by priests under his authority for decades, and one can easily imagine them muttering, “We finally got the bastard!” without caring how they got him.

    To anyone familiar with a Catholic church in the half-hour after a solemn mass (in which time the cardinal was accused of having perpetrated his indecencies upon the two choirboys), the testimony of the complainant does not make logistical or practical sense — it is not credible. Yet the case depends upon the truthfulness and honesty of the one witness, who is the complainant himself, even though there are no other witnesses to confirm his testimony and no independent supporting evidence. The prosecutor’s case comes nowhere near overcoming reasonable doubt.

    This is not a proud moment for the Australian judiciary and legal system. Yes, many angry Australians have avenged themselves in some small way for Cardinal Pell’s long years of destructive arrogance and incompetence concerning sexual crimes against minors, but this is not how justice is rendered in a civilized society. I too, like many others, would like to see Cardinal Pell and a few other hierarchs brought to justice for their serious failures of duty concerning such criminal activity, but I take no pleasure in the mere vindictiveness of the present case, where the usual high standards of justice have been ignored.

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  • To anyone familiar with a Catholic church in the half-hour after a solemn mass (in which time the cardinal was accused of having perpetrated his indecencies upon the two choirboys), the testimony of the complainant does not make logistical or practical sense — it is not credible. 

    That’s interesting, Cairsley. I’m not familiar with procedures in Catholic churches, so could you elaborate a little, please? Would there just be too many people milling about?

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  • You can watch parts of his interrogation online.  He offers a defense to an allegation the detective does not make.  In fact, he offers it in such a way that it is possible to believe he has intimate knowledge of the allegation to come; this despite his having been lied to about why he was being questioned in the first place.

    As for opportunity, that is indeed the defense he offers.  Unfortunately for him the time required isn’t great, and while witnesses do put him in front with the congregation after mass, they all put him there for only a few minutes.

    I’m sure there is more, and a reasonable defense may exist. But honestly I can’t be bothered.  I think I’m only responding because it irks me to read a correct reaction –how justice ought to be– confused with how justice works in practice.

    Where is this civilized justice?



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  • 4
    Cairsley says:

    Marco  #2

    Would there just be too many people milling about?

    That is the general point. The sacristy, where the offence is claimed to have occurred, is a busy place in the half-hour after a mass, especially after a solemn mass in a cathedral. While the celebrant is socializing with congregants at or near the entrance to the cathedral, sacristans and servers are busy cleaning up and putting things away in the various parts of the sacristy. The scene depicted in the complainant’s testimony simply does not fit the ordinary scene at a church after a Sunday mass. Ordinarily the celebrant or celebrants (there are often a few concelebrants at a solemn mass) begin to return to the sacristy about ten or twenty minutes after the mass, where they unvest, and that too is usually a social occasion among the priests, sacristans and any servers who may still be around, and any laypeople who may have reason to speak to any of them at that time. There is little scope in this scene for an act of sexual assault to be perpetrated.

    The Sydney Morning Herald article that I have placed below includes a summary of the arguments made by George Pell’s defence counsel, some of which are more significant than others. Several of them cover what I have said in the previous paragraph. The argument about the vestments (robes) claimed by the complainant to have been worn by the archbishop during his sexual assault on him did not impress me at first, because it focused on the weight of the vestments, which in my opinion is negligible. But the inconvenience of the vestments, in particular the alb, is significant where someone might want to expose his penis for whatever purpose. So a word about the alb…

    The alb is a long, white, unpleated tunic that reaches from the neck to the ankles. The adjective ‘unpleated’ is the significant word here. This garment is the most restrictive of movement of all the vestments the archbishop would have been wearing on the occasion. The only way the penis can be exposed while one is wearing an alb is to pull the alb up from below; and, because it has no pleats, one cannot just pull up the front of it far enough to get to the fly of the trousers. The lower part of the alb would have to be pulled up the back of the legs as well, in order to gain access at the front to the crotch of the trousers. I would not say that, if one were sexually aroused and dressed in full priestly vestments just after solemn mass, and wanted to flip out one’s dick for a bit of pokey fun, it could absolutely not be done, but I know I for one would have lost all interest in such fun by the time I had pushed the chasuble aside and, holding it aside, pulled up the alb far enough to get at my trouser-zipper and fumbled with my underpants to get the magic wand out. It would no longer be magic, but rather limp.

    So I remain of the view that the scene depicted by the complainant’s testimony, however sincerely delivered, is not credible. I do not say it is impossible. There are people who would be happy to suspect a conspiracy of secrecy at work here, whereby the others working or socializing in the sacristy near and farther off (all evil Catholics) may have noticed the wicked deeds of the archbishop but chosen to remain silent. Whatever improbable interpretations and hypotheses one may enjoy considering, we have to remember that what is needed in the case brought against George Pell is evidence that dispels reasonable doubt, and that has certainly not been provided.

  • Thanks for that, Cairsley. I can see why you have doubts about the feasibility of the alleged attacks.

    Looking through the defence arguments, though, this one stood out to me as being wholly lacking in credibility:

    It was not possible for Pell to be in the sacristy a few minutes after mass when witnesses said they saw him go to the front of the cathedral to greet parishioners.

    The alleged attacks weren’t reported until 2015, a full 8 or 9 years after they are claimed to have taken place. No way would any ‘witness’ (let alone in the plural) be able to state with certainty that they had seen Pell go to the front of the cathedral to greet parishioners after what would have seemed like just another perfectly normal service on one specific day 8 or 9 years before.

    I’m not offering any view on his guilt or innocence in this particular case – I haven’t heard or seen or read all the evidence on either side, so I’m just not in a position to. But, as someone who’s previously done jury service, I do know it’s extremely difficult to reach a verdict when neither the prosecution nor defence case is wholly plausible, as seems to be the case here. Though you make an entirely valid point about ‘reasonable doubt’ in that situation. I suspect that a Scottish jury might have made use of the very helpful option of “Not proven” as their verdict.

    I’d like to think that a panel of appeal judges could be relied upon to reach the right legal conclusion, though – though I must confess I’m less sanguine about either the professional rigorousness or the incorruptibility of all sorts of establishment figures these days.

    Thanks again.


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  • All you have to ask is how long the guy had been wearing these cumbersome garments before the alleged incidents took place.



    “Part of Cardinal Pell’s case on the appeal was that there were 13 solid obstacles in the path of a conviction. Justice Maxwell and I have rejected all 13,” Justice Ferguson said. “By way of example, one of the 13 obstacles was said to be that the acts alleged to have been committed by Cardinal Pell in the first incident were physically impossible. “The defence relied on categorical statements by Monsignor and by the sacrister, that it was not possible to pull the Cardinal’s robes to the side. “The robes were an exhibit at the trial and had been available to the jury in the jury room during their deliberation. “Having taken the advantage of the opportunity to feel the weight of the robes, and assess their manoeuvrability as garments, Justice Maxwell and I decided that it was well open to the jury to reject the contention of physical impossibility. “The robes were not so heavy, nor so immovable as the evidence of Monseigneur Portelli and Mr Potter had suggested. “We found that the robes were capable of being manoeuvred in a way that might be described as being pulled to one side or pulled apart.”

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  • 8
    Cairsley says:

    Sean W  #6

    The defence counsel’s arguments concerning the “robes” (ugh, Anglican talk) were inadequate in my opinion, as though the lawyers and judges and (in the first trial) the jury had never worn them. The “categorical statements” of Monsignor Portelli, who had no doubt worn the garments concerned countless times but was not in the habit of justifying his conclusions with … ugh … practical particulars) were not at all helpful in considering how one or more of the vestments might have obstructed the archbishop in the alleged sexual assault. The alb, which I would say is the main obstructive garment worn by a priest at mass, is mentioned only as a garment worn under the chasuble, without any consideration of how the alb would be an obstacle to the alleged criminal activity. My impression is that, during their inspection of the cathedral, the appeal court justices only felt and manoeuvred the vestments while they were on their hangers or laid out on benches. At least one of them should have tried on all the vestments as for a mass and then tried to do what the archbishop is alleged to have done. The alb, I submit, is the garment that would have presented the greatest obstacle to the archbishop’s alleged purpose, yet nowhere does this seem to have been considered. There are only the rather unspecific “categorical statements” about the weight and manoeuvrability of the vestments, which the examining justices could all too easily dismiss as of no significance.

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  • Really?  That’s why I asked how long he had been wearing them.  I’m not sure how you imagine his familiarity with the garments in question could be matched by someone merely trying them on.  It is sufficient to know that it is possible, and that he had spent years in them to render this line of defense laughable.


    Have you watched any of the interrogation or analysis of it yet?



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  • 10
    Cairsley says:

    Sean W  #9

    The garment that I have singled out as the one that would be most restrictive of a priest’s attempt to bring out his penis for sexual misuse is the alb, which is only worn at the more solemn liturgical occasions like the mass. Like the other vestments that are usually worn with it, it is taken off after the liturgy. It is not like the soutane (cassock), which used to be worn all day by priests and bishops, but not so much now, except on more formal occasions outside religious rituals and in rituals where a surplice is worn. Wearing the alb only in solemn liturgies does not make it any easier over time to do things with it that one never does with it. In practice, one goes to the toilet before donning the alb and other vestments, because, if one ever needs to go to the toilet when wearing an alb, it is easier to take the alb off, which means taking all the other vestments off too, in order to gain sufficiently easy access to the pertinent parts of one’s body. If the idea of familiarity with the vestments after many years of use suggests anything, it is that George Pell would know that, if he had a mind to commit sexual abuse of a minor, he would have a better chance of doing so successfully when he was not wearing liturgical vestments.

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  • Success depends mostly on opportunity, doesn’t it?

    Anyway, it is not reasonable to say that it is both possible and impossible.  You have only gone some way to establishing it would be difficult; a point which is adequately refuted by Pell’s experience.

    There is good news though!

    This hardly makes him guilty.  😉

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  • I see that the announcement of the deferred verdict on Pell’s final appeal is due tomorrow!

    The ex-Vatican treasurer is serving a six-year jail sentence after a jury found he abused two boys in a Melbourne cathedral in the 1990s.

    On Tuesday, the court will hand down its judgement in the case and is likely to determine whether Pell serves the remainder of his sentence or walks free.

    It represents the 78-year-old’s last avenue of appeal, after a lower court rejected his first attempt to quash the verdict last year.

    We can look out for that, just in case it gets buried in some of the more pressing news.


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  • 14
    Michael 100 says:

    “… all presumptive evidence of felony should be admitted cautiously, for the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”  William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, circa 1760. 

    I am certainly not a fan of George Pell, however, the question of his guilt or non-guilt, must be entrusted to the greatest legal minds of the country in which he was tried.  The system adopted by the People of Australia, demands scrutiny by all layers of the hierarchical judicial system.  One may not agree with the decisions of the court in any particular case, but without an independent judiciary, democracy is impossible.  If Pell were deprived of his right to due process under the law, than the rights of no one would be safe.

    P.S. Anther great Englishman wrote: “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass — a idiot. …” Charles Dickens

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  • I see Pell has been freed.

    It will be interesting to see if all the other abuse victims who put their cases on hold when he was convicted of these selected sample offences, now bring them forward!

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