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What happens now George Pell is free

The High Court of Australia has granted an appeal to George Pell which saw him leave Barwon Prison after 400 days behind bars. What were the responses and what does this mean for the wrongfully convicted cardinal?

user iconNaomi Neilson 08 April 2020 Big Law
Cardinal George Pell
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After serving over a year of his six-year sentence for the conviction of sexual abuse against two choirboys, Cardinal Pell has walked free from Barwon Prison. The High Court ruled in favour of Cardinal Pell’s lawyers and allowed the appeal.

“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place,” the full bench said in its statement.

The High Court considered that, while the Court of Appeal majority assessed the evidence as leaving open the possibility that the complainant’s account was correct, “their honour’s analysis failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had taken place”.

 
 

Former Victorian Chief Magistrate Nicholas Papas QC told Lawyers Weekly the decision was not controversial in a legal sense and that it reinforced the well-established principle that if a jury gets it wrong and should have entertained reasonable doubt, the Court of Appeal will interfere.

However, it should not interfere with future historic sexual offence cases: “Historic sexual cases often have a difficulty because of history, but there are plenty of convictions still and I don’t see [this decision] as necessarily affecting sex cases in any particular way.”

The decision itself was handed down via Twitter. On this arguably contemporary decision, Mr Papas told Lawyers Weekly that it was an interesting move.

“The law is adapting, finally, to modern technology and reflecting the means of society by using technology that is not particularly controversial,” Mr Papas said. “I think, for my part, it is refreshing and excellent.”

There have been many responses to the major High Court decision. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews would not comment on the decision, but offered this for survivors of child sexual abuse: “I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”

George Pell thanks legal team as family of claimant expresses disappointment

In his first statement since being put behind bars for a now-overturned conviction on sexual abuse, Cardinal Pell said he has consistently maintained his innocence “while suffering from a serious injustice” that has been remedied by the High Court.

“I hold no will to my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough. However, my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the church,” Cardinal Pell said.

“This point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, I did not.”

Cardinal Pell thanked his entire legal team, including Bret Walker SC and Ruth Shann, for their “unwavering resolve to see justice prevail to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth”.

Meanwhile, Shine Lawyers said their client – the father of “J”, who lost his life due to the post-traumatic stress from his alleged abuse – was in shock.

National practice leader Lisa Flynn said: “He is furious the man he believes is responsible for sexually abusing his son was convicted by a unanimous jury only to have that decision overturned today, allowing George Pell to walk free from jail.”

Catholic Church acknowledges claimants, welcomes decision

There have been mixed statements from the Catholic Church following the news of Cardinal Pell’s appeal. Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the decision was “welcomed by many” and acknowledged those who believed in the Cardinal’s innocence throughout the process.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli said the case has been “an intense and painful time for all those personally involved, those who have experienced abuse, and for the Catholic community in Melbourne”.

“At the heart of this trial and appeal process have been the people involved. I want to firstly acknowledge the person identified through the courts only as ‘J’, who brought forward his story of abuse for examination in the courts of law. This is a right we value and honour,” Archbishop Comensoli said.

“Healing the damage done to those who have suffered church-related sexual abuse and building a culture of life and goodness for all in the church, is the task I lead, and is something in which we all have a part to play,” he said.

What happens now?

The acquittal saw Cardinal Pell walk out of jail after spending 400-plus days behind bars. It was at great personal cost, but according to Mr Papas, there is no legal option available for the cardinal.

“It’s a very significant question,” Mr Papas told Lawyers Weekly. “There are many people who walk out having been acquitted on appeal, who don’t get compensated. Some do, but there is no mechanism. He, of course, will now deal with the Vatican.

“Theoretically, there are still issues floating around, none of which I would have thought would [impact George Pell]. The church itself may be involved in civil litigation still, and most of that seems to have flowed out of the royal commission.”

According to Slater and Gordon principal lawyer Nick Hart, abuse survivors still have an avenue to bring law action against Cardinal Pell under the civil system’s common law abuse claims, even now that his guilty verdict has been overturned.

“Some abuse survivors who have stayed silent may be deterred from coming forward at all and we don’t want that,” Mr Hart said. “The reality is that they have all been watching closely, and some would have been relying on this final decision for the strength to come forward now or in future.”

Mr Hart added that it is important to continue advocating for abuse survivors and their ability to ensure their voices are heard and “justice is pursued” against the Catholic Church and other institutions “that they are made accountable”.

“It’s a sad fact with his sex abuse convictions being overturned by the High Court that many abuse victims would continue suffering in silence and may lose hope that they will ever be believed,” Mr Hart said in a statement.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Resonses to Child Sexual Abuse can now also release their unredacted findings into how church leaders in Ballarat and Melbourne handled the abuse that went on.

“There were a whole lot of redacted findings, which were redacted on the purpose of Cardinal Pell’s awaiting trial,” Mr Papas said. “They will now potentially unredacted those passages. The only reason it was redacted was because of this trial.”

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