SYDNEY — 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.
“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.”
Another appeal, to the High Court, is possible, although the highest court rarely overturns criminal convictions.
In a statement, the Vatican acknowledged the decision, noting that Pell had always “maintained his innocence” and could still appeal to the High Court. It also reiterated its commitment to pursue members of the clergy involved in abuse “through the competent ecclesiastical authorities.”
Pell, who oversaw the Vatican’s finances before he was charged, was found guilty in December of one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of an indecent act against a child under 16. He was sentenced on March 13.
In their submissions, Pell’s lawyers argued that the original trial was unfair because the cardinal wasn’t able to present evidence they say demonstrated it would have been impractical for him to molest the boys given the amount of time available after conducting a Sunday Mass.
They also said Pell, who was the city’s archbishop at the time, could not have exposed his genitals because of the heavy clothing he was wearing. Ferguson and another judge, Chris Maxwell, examined Pell’s robes and weren’t convinced by the argument, nor did they accept that there were any procedural or legal flaws in the trial.
Pell’s robes had also been made available to the jury, which reached a unanimous verdict.
The appeal decision wasn’t unanimous. A third judge, Mark Weinberg, said he believed that the victim’s evidence could have been concocted and was implausible and unconvincing.
Although the three judges didn’t hear from the man in person, they watched a video recording of his allegations against Pell, and the cardinal’s denials in an interview with police detectives.
Ferguson told Pell that he would have to return to jail, and that he would be eligible for parole after spending three years and eight months in prison.
“Please take Cardinal Pell from the court room,” she said.
Last August the church publicly apologized for the thousands of victims of abuse in Australia and pledged that it would never happen again.
Church critics were jubilant at Wednesday’s decision, which legal experts had said could go either way.
“Pell is a pedophile,” tweeted Chris Murphy, a prominent Australian criminal defense lawyer. “Woe betide those who clapped him as a saint.”
Before he went to jail, Pell circulated among the international elite. Even after he was found guilty he received character references from several prominent Australians, including former prime minister John Howard.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Pell will be stripped of his Order of Australia honor.