SYDNEY — Australia’s top court on Wednesday agreed to review the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic priest jailed for pedophilia in modern history.
Pell’s original guilty finding, by a unanimous jury in December, was upheld by an appeals court in August, prompting the archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, to note what he described as the “divided opinion amongst legal commentators and the general public” about the facts of the case.
“Reasonable people have taken different views when presented with the same evidence,” he said.
In their request to the High Court, Pell’s lawyers didn’t attack the credibility of the single surviving victim. Rather, they argued that even if the man’s evidence was compelling or believable, it was not enough to eliminate the reasonable doubt raised by other witnesses that it wouldn’t have been physically possible for the assaults to occur given the robes Pell was wearing and the time available after Sunday Mass at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Pell is serving a six-year sentence in a prison in Victoria state.
All seven judges of the High Court are expected to hear his appeal early next year. Their decision — Pell’s final avenue of appeal — will determine how the Vatican moves forward with its own case against Pell.
Before Wednesday’s decision, the Holy See said its disciplinary body is “awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case.”
In the meantime, Pope Francis has imposed what the Vatican calls “precautionary measures” against the cardinal, prohibiting him from exercising public ministry and from any voluntary contact with minors.
After the High Court announced its decision, the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday that it reiterated “its trust in the Australian justice system,” and noted that Pell has “always maintained his innocence.”
“At this time, the Holy See reaffirms once again its closeness to those who have suffered because of sexual abuse on the part of members of the clergy,” the statement said.
Pell had been a towering figure in Rome until 2017, when the charges were first announced. He then took a leave of absence from his role as economy minister, what is widely considered the third most important position in the Vatican. But the Vatican said earlier this year that Pell is no longer in that role. Francis has also dropped Pell from his de facto cabinet, known as the C-9.
The Vatican now faces strong pressure to enact its own measures. If the Vatican pursues such punishment, Pell could be removed from the priesthood — as happened in February with former cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. McCarrick never faced criminal prosecution because his alleged crimes were beyond the statute of limitations. In a church proceeding, however, he was found guilty of soliciting sex during confession and committing “sins” with minors and adults.
In Rome, Pell’s case has been more divisive than McCarrick’s. A handful of high-ranking clerics and other Catholic figures have argued strenuously that Pell is innocent and that the details of the abuse — that he would have committed the crimes after a busy Mass, while wearing vestments — don’t add up.
Harlan reported from Rome.