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In this Feb. 27, 2019, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia. In this Feb. 27, 2019, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia. Pell, the most senior Catholic convicted of child sex abuse will soon ask an Australian appeals court to reverse convictions on charges of molesting two choirboys in a cathedral more than 20 years ago. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill, File)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Lawyers for the most senior Roman Catholic found guilty of child sex abuse argued in his appeal on Wednesday that he could not have molested two choirboys in an Australian cathedral undetected moments after Sunday Masses while he was dressed in an archbishop's robes.

Cardinal George Pell, 77, wore a black suit and black shirt with a cleric's collar when he appeared for the Victoria state Court of Appeal hearing before three judges. He came and went from the court as the sole occupant of a prison van. He said nothing during the hearing.

Pell's lawyer Bret Walker argued for more than five hours that the five verdicts against Pell were "unsafe and unsatisfactory" and should be overturned.

Pell's lawyers cited former High Court Justice Michael McHugh who said "juries are likely to be affected by the prejudices and even the hysterias that from time to time are found in the community."

Demonstrator Joe Mitchell, 83, drove more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from his home in Newcastle in New South Wales state to Melbourne to protest outside the court against the church response to child abuse.

"I'm a victim. I hope they put a rope around his ... neck," a tearful Mitchell said. "They say how could you remember back 70 years? I remember everything."

The prosecution will argue on Thursday why the verdicts were sound and should stand. Whoever wins, the case could reach the High Court, Australia's ultimate arbiter.

A jury unanimously convicted Pell in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy's 13-year-old friend in Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in the late 1990s. Pell had become archbishop of Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, only months before.

Court orders for months had prevented publication of the details of that trial and an earlier trial on similar charges that had ended in September with a deadlocked jury.

Pell was sentenced in March to six years in prison. He is held in special protective custody because pedophiles are regarded as being at higher risk of harm from other prisoners.

While Pell remains Australia's highest-ranking Catholic, the Vatican is conducting its own investigation into the convictions of Pope Francis's former finance minister.

Francis' papacy has been thrown into turmoil by clerical sexual abuse and the church's handling of such cases worldwide. In a little more than a year, the pope has admitted he made "grave errors" in Chile's worst case of cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile, and a third cardinal, former U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.

Walker told the three judges the main ground for appeal was that the jury could not have found Pell guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the evidence.

In written submissions, Pell's lawyers said that more than 20 prosecution witnesses who had an official role in the Sunday Mass in 1996, after which the then-Archbishop Pell molested the boys in a rear room over five or six minutes, gave evidence that the offences did not or could not have occurred.

"This evidence constituted a catalogue of at least 13 solid obstacles in the path of a conviction," the submissions said.

"No matter what view was taken of the complainant as a witness, it was simply not open to a jury to accept his words beyond reasonable doubt," they added.

Pell's lawyers argue in their submissions the "the evidence showed the offending was impossible."

One of the appeal judges, Justice Mark Weinberg, said the term "impossibility" had been used by the defense repeatedly during Pell's trial and was "quite misleading in lots of ways."

One of Pell's victims died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31, apparently without making any accusation of abuse. State law prevents victims of sexual assault from being publicly identified.

Weeks after Pell molested the two boys in a priests' sacristy, the then archbishop has been convicted of squeezing the surviving choirboy's genitals as they passed in a corridor after Mass. Pell's lawyers argue that the new archbishop would have been speaking to worshippers on the front steps of the cathedral in the moments after a Mass in December 1996, when the prosecutors alleged he found his victims swigging altar wine and abused them.

Centuries-old church law dictated that bishops must not be left alone while robed, so he would have had clerics with him when he stumbled upon his victims in the sacristy, the lawyers argued.

His lawyers say the offending would have taken five or six minutes, and someone in the cathedral would have heard or seen something.

Walker said the archbishop's robes were so constrictive that clerics could not use the toilet while wearing them, much less engage in sexual abuse.

Prosecutors argue the trial heard corroborative and supportive evidence for the complainant's testimony. He has accurately described the layout of the sacristy — a room he had only ever entered the day Pell molested him, the lawyers argue.

"The evidence given by the complainant was not only plausible, it was credible, clear and entirely believable as is reflected in the jury's verdict," the prosecutors' submission said.

If the appeal judges rule that the verdict is unsafe on the evidence, Pell would by acquitted and would not have to be retried.

Pell's lawyers have also argued that the trial judge erred in not allowing them to use a video graphic in their closing address. They said the graphic would demonstrate that the crimes that were alleged would have been impossible.

A third ground details an alleged "fundamental irregularity" in the trial in that Pell was not arraigned — asked if he pleaded guilty or not guilty — in front of the chosen jury.

A victory on either of those grounds could result in Pell being retried. But he would likely be freed on bail until his third trial.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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sheila gray
4 years 11 months ago

Is anyone else uncomfortable with Cardinal Pell nitpicking about his conviction? The clergy abuse crisis is destroying The Church on many levels, in many countries. In the US, it has paid out $300 Million in the last 12 months alone!!! Over and over and over again guilty clerics all over this country and the world have been bellowing their innocence! “The Cardinal doth protest too much, wethinks!”

Lisa M
4 years 11 months ago

I agree they all profess their innocence, but this one does appear to merit review. Lets pray the truth prevails.

Ingrid Wisniewski
4 years 11 months ago

Nitpicking about his conviction? But what if he might be innocent?

John Barbieri
4 years 11 months ago

The Australian justice system has a reputation for being fair. Let right be done!

Colin Jory
4 years 11 months ago

This report would be commendable except for two disquieting statements. The first is Mr McGuirk's declaration that "Pell's lawyers said that more than 20 prosecution witnesses who had an official role in the Sunday Mass in 1996, after which the then-Archbishop Pell molested the boys in a rear room over five or six minutes, gave evidence...". The second is, "Weeks after Pell molested the two boys in a priests' sacristy...". In both statements McGuirk represents Cardinal Pell as being guilty as charged. McGuirk is thoroughly familiar with the evidence, and thus knows full well that, just as Pell's defence team asserts, it is manifestly impossible that Pell could have done as alleged Is McGuirk (an Australian) throwing a bone to the Pell-haters, so they'll gnaw it instead of grawing him the way they have viciously gnawed the calves and ankles of Father Frank Brennan, SJ (no friend of the Cardinal's), for publicly questioning the jury's verdict?

In reality what became obvious from the testimony in the (nationally broadcast) Appeals Court hearing yesterday is that the Pell jury decided to ignore the presiding judge's instructions and their own duty, and, in deference to twenty years of virulent Pell-hatred in much of the Australian media, settled on two counter-legal principals for judging Pell. The first was that a reverse onus of proof should apply, with Pell being required to prove his innocence instead of the prosecution being required to prove his guilt. The second was that the standard of proof required of Pell should be higher even than "beyond reasonable doubt" -- it should be "beyond the farthest reaches of fantasy". Moreover, the fact that the jury didn't even sit through an existential "real" trial, but instead watched a video of the (aborted) first Pell trial, seems to have flipped their minds into soapy-watching fantasy mode, and caused them to judge what they were watching as they would have an episode of a TV soapy, cheering whom they considered to be the "nice guy" and jeering at whom they considered to be the "mean guy".

Ingrid Wisniewski
4 years 11 months ago

Not having the slightest clue whether he is guilty or innocent, it seems next to impossible for him to get a fair trial anywhere in Australia.

Tim O'Leary
4 years 11 months ago

Imagine the scene - a stickler for orthodox Catholic teaching and liturgical decorum, has a lapse of habit and an uncontrollable urge, in the middle of a busy morning, on his first Mass as Archbishop in an unfamiliar Cathedral. Already dealing with accusations that he, as part of the Catholic hierarchy, has covered for other priests' homosexual abuse of minors, starts his new position with a double whammy of the same crime. He dashes away from his clueless helpers into the sacristy, keeping the door wide open. He manages to whip the vestment over his head or up half his body, all the while people could be walking in and out. In 5-6 mins, he has the time and energy for forced oral sex with two boys, then a quick slip back on of the vestment, a regaining of his composure, tidying his clothes, and finally, a rush back to greet the congregation, per his custom. Oh, and the 2 choir boys go back to rehearsal and never speak about it for decades to come (one denies it all). Sounds more like a macabre Monthy Python skit. This is impossible. Yet, so many who tout their concern for abused children, don't seem to care if he did it. No physical evidence, no witnesses, 20 counter-witnesses, none challenged (no need when the evidence doesn't matter). A deadlocked prior jury. No challenge permitted of the accuser, now a middle-aged adult. The point is they need a sacrifice and any priest will do, especially an orthodox Catholic Archbishop. Like the Mitchell guy quoted above, who drove 600 miles to clamor for his hanging. It is amazing. It is madness. It is a travesty of justice. It has already done great harm to the credibility of the Australian justice system. Everyone who is not under the spell will be skeptical of any other accusation against a priest down under.

Vincent Couling
4 years 11 months ago

Being a "stickler for orthodox Catholic teaching" is no guarantee that a cleric cannot be guilty of sexual abuse of minors ... the celebrated case of Marcial Maciel Degollado springs to mind ... many neocons considered him to be a living saint ... Harvard law professor and former US ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon scoffed at the sex-abuse allegations against him, calling Marcial a man of "radiant holiness" ... JPII called him "an efficacious guide to youth" ... Richard Neuhaus, editor of First Things, believed with "moral certainty" that the charges against Maciel were "false and malicious".

Perhaps, rather than trying to sell myopic speculation as indisputable fact, we should allow the Australian legal process to run its course?

Tim O'Leary
4 years 11 months ago

Vincent - I am not surprised you would cling to this one point (an orthodox Catholic) and ignore the rest that deals with the question of guilt or innocence. Somehow, it just doesn't seem to bother you or other Pell-haters that this particular charge is preposterous and the guilty conviction is a travesty of justice. Pell may well have this conviction thrown out on appeal, but he has already suffered greatly, with imprisonment, enforced separation from the sacraments (even prevented from saying his daily Mass - like in Soviet Siberian prisons), loss of position in the Church, the slander against his reputation and the continuous calumny of the Christophobic Australian media. Of course I agree that faithful acceptance of Church teaching should not exonerate real acts of sex abuse, and I know the bisexual abuser Maciel and the homosexual abuser McCarrick both fooled many people across the theological spectrum, for many years. But, I know of no case or claim against Maciel or McCarrick that was built on such improbable circumstances. Moreover, Pell is being pilloried primarily for his forceful preaching. Whatever else he has done in his life, he is clearly innocent of this particular charge as described. No matter how the appeal turns out, or what future crime they tie to Pell, this single event has put the Australian justice system on trial, like the French system in the Dreyfus affair - not Cardinal Pell.

Tim O'Leary
4 years 11 months ago

Update from the Appeal from Daily Telegraph journalist Miranda Devine: "Cardinal George Pell and his supporters were relieved that his appeal of his child sexual assault conviction was live-streamed on Wednesday. The intense seven-hour courtroom argument was the first time the public has heard first-hand the flimsiness of the evidence against him. Three judges of the Victorian Appeals Court are reviewing the jury’s verdict in which Cardinal Pell was convicted of sexually assaulting two choir boys after Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in December 1996. One of the boys has since died and told his mother he never was molested.

"So that leaves the conviction to be based on the word of one man against Cardinal Pell’s, with no corroborating evidence, no forensic evidence, no witnesses, and against a mountain of contrary evidence which showed that the allegations were highly improbable, if not impossible.

"The jury verdict has troubled legal experts and lay people around the world ever since. The evidence seen so far leads to the conclusion that an innocent man was jailed to atone for the sins of others in a church plagued by sexual abuse scandals."

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