Australia: Appeal by George Pell against convictions for child sexual abuse fails

A majority of a panel of Supreme Court justices has rejected the appeal by George Pell against his convictions for child sexual abuse.

The decision means that Mr Pell, who has already spent 24 weeks in prison, has been ordered to serve a full term of six years in prison, although he will be eligible to apply for release on parole after serving three years and eight months – in October 2022.

Supreme Court Appeal

Courts of Criminal Appeal (CCA), which are divisions of the Supreme Court, have jurisdiction to hear and decide appeals against convictions – which are those against findings of guilt – and appeals against the severity of sentences – which are appeals made on the basis that the sentences imposed were 'manifestly excessive'.

CCA Appeals are typically presided over by a panel of three justices, and Pell's appeal was no exception. It was ultimately rejected by a 2-1 majority.

The CCA is the highest court in the state, and the last possible avenue of appeal is to the High Court of Australia, which is the highest court in the land.

Possibility of High Court Appeal

Mr Pell has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings.

However, the lengthy legal process culminated in a jury finding him guilty in December last year of five counts of sexually abusing two choirboys while he was the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.

At the time he was initially remanded in custody, Pell's lawyers made clear they would lodge an appeal against the convictions.

They have now foreshadowed a further appeal to the High Court. An application for leave to appeal to that Court would need to be lodged within 28 days, and if leave (permission) is granted, the appeal process could take another 12 months, or more.

Victim relieved

A victim of Pell's abuse issued a statement in the wake of today's decision, saying:

"The criminal process has been stressful... has taken me to places that in my darkest moments I feared I would not return from....There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice process and the appeals process is just one of them. I just hope that it is all over now."

Pell may be stripped of his OAM

Various Catholic leaders in Australia have issued statements about the decision, including the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, who made clear that he "respects the court's decision", and "encourage[s] everyone to do the same".

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, stated that, "all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today's judgement accordingly".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also indicated that it is possible that George Pell will be stripped of his Order of Australia medal.

Pope remains silent on Pell

However, the continued silence by the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has been deafening in the eyes of many.

George Pell was once Australia's highest ranking Catholic official, having charge of the Church's finances and dubbed "third-in-charge" of the Church. He is the most senior Catholic figure in history to be convicted of a sexual offence.

Last year, the Pope declared a 'zero tolerance' policy for child sexual abuse, forcing the resignations of several senior priests found guilty of child sexual offence, or of covering up the offences of other Church members.

He also defrocked Chillean Priest, Reverend Fernando Karadima, who was found guilty of a several sexual offences against children in 2011 and also former archbishop of Washington DC, Theodore McCarrick, 88 over claims sexual abuse.

However, many believe the Pope's statement during a month-long 'Synod', or conference, for Bishops last year raises concerns about the Church's commitment to treating the issue of child sexual abuse seriously.

During the conference, Pope Francis told Bishops from around the world that the Church was being victimised over claims of child sexual abuse, and persecuted by "the Devil".

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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