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Jailed Cdl. Pell would likely win appeal based on ‘unreasonable’ guilty verdict: experts

Lianne Laurence Lianne Laurence Follow Lianne

MELBOURNE, Australia, March 1, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Legal experts say Australia’s Cardinal George Pell has a strong case to appeal his sexual abuse convictions on the basis of "unreasonableness," the Guardian has reported.

That’s also the opinion of American Catholic writer George Weigel, a longtime friend of the 77-year-old prelate who is now in protective custody at a maximum security prison awaiting his sentence on March 13, after which time the appeal process can start.

Pell was found guilty by jury in December of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys 22 years ago. Each of the five convictions — one of sexual penetrating a child under 16, and four of an indecent act with a child under 16 – carries a maximum jail term of 10 years.

Pell’s first trial on the charges ended in September with a hung jury, with 10 of the 12 supporting Pell’s acquittal. The Crown opted literally to try again.

Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter said at a plea hearing Wednesday the appeal will be based on three grounds: unreasonableness, the ban on video evidence in Richter’s closing summation, and the makeup of the jury, reported the Guardian.

While the last two grounds seem “flimsy,” Pell’s legal team has a strong case for appeal grounds of unreasonableness, which means the jury’s verdict is not supported by evidence, it reported.

“This is the defence’s best shot,” Professor Jeremy Gans, University of Melbourne law school’s criminal appeals and procedure expert, told the Guardian.

Moreover, winning an appeal on the grounds of unreasonableness means “there can almost certainly be no new trial, Gans said, “Because once a court decides a guilty verdict is unreasonable it means they don’t think guilty should be the verdict in the next trial either. They would almost certainly acquit.”

One judge initially reviews the appeal application, but it’s virtually certain it will be heard.

“No judge would decide not to allow an appeal in such a high-stakes trial,” Gans told the Guardian. “Their grounds of appealing on unreasonableness is solid.”

Three judges will hear the appeal and unanimous agreement is not required for a ruling. 

The process can take ten months or more, according to the Guardian, but because of Pell’s age and health — he is recovering from double knee replacement surgery — it’s likely the process will be accelerated.

There are a number of reasons Pell’s appeal will succeed, Gans told the Guardian, most notably that the prosecution had only one key witness, and the second alleged victim, who died five years ago, denied he had been sexually abused.

However, a jury is free to convict if they find one witness “believable,” he said.

A number of observers have joined Weigel in decrying the verdict after Judge Peter Kidd lifted a publication ban on the trial earlier this week.

It’s now revealed the lone complainant alleged he and another choirboy left the procession after Sunday High Mass at Melbourne’s cathedral, went into the sacristy and were drinking sacramental wine when Pell surprised them and proceeded to sexually abuse them.

Weigel listed in the National Review the ten “improbable” things that would have had to have happened within 10 minutes for this story to be true: 

  • Archbishop Pell abandoned his decades-long practice of greeting congregants outside the cathedral after Mass.
  • Pell, who was typically accompanied by a master of ceremonies or sacristan when he was vested for Mass, entered the carefully controlled space of the vesting sacristy alone.
  • The master of ceremonies, charged with helping the archbishop disrobe while removing his own liturgical vestments, had disappeared.
  • The sacristan, charged with the care of the locked sacristy, had also disappeared.
  • The sacristan did not go back and forth between the sacristy and the cathedral sanctuary, removing missals and Mass vessels, as was his responsibility and consistent practice.
  • The altar servers, like the sacristan, simply disappeared, rather than helping the sacristan clear the sanctuary by bringing liturgical vessels and books back to the sacristy.
  • The priests who concelebrated the Mass with Pell were not in the sacristy disrobing after the ceremony. 
  • At least 40 people did not notice that two choirboys left the post-Mass procession.
  • Two choirboys entered the sacristy, started gulping altar wine, and were accosted and abused by Archbishop Pell — while the sacristy door was open and the archbishop was in full liturgical vestments.
  • The abused choirboys then entered the choir room, through two locked doors, without anyone noticing, and participated in a post-Mass rehearsal; no one asked why they had been missing for ten minutes.

It’s clear to Weigel that Pell has been wrongfully convicted.

“If it is not reversed on appeal, that false verdict will constitute a new indictment: the indictment of a legal system that could not bring itself to render justice in the face of public hysteria, political vendetta, and media aggression,” he wrote in First Things,

He compared the public mood in Australia to that of “Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft hysteria of the seventeenth century.”

Victoria police began a “fishing expedition against Pell, a year before any complaint had been received from an alleged victim,” wrote Weigel.

Tellingly, the Guardian’s David Marr noted that “sitting quietly up the front” at Pell’s plea hearing Wednesday “was Detective Chris Reed, the Victorian policeman who has pursued Pell for the last four years. His work is also on trial here.”

Known for his doctrinal orthodoxy, Pell has been subjected for some 25 years to “calumnies” in “both the hyper-secularist Australian media and in Church circles determined to hang on to their dreams of post–Vatican II revolution,” wrote Weigel.

The Holy See announced Wednesday it is opening an investigation into allegations against Pell. The Cardinal in his former role as Vatican treasurer was tasked with cleaning up corruption and was considered the third most powerful man in the Vatican. 

Related:

Cardinal Pell sent to maximum security prison before sentencing; Vatican to open investigation

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