CANBERRA – Australia’s highest court agreed Wednesday to hear an appeal from the most senior Catholic to be found guilty of sexually abusing children, giving Cardinal George Pell his last chance at getting his convictions overturned.
The decision by the High Court of Australia comes nearly a year after a unanimous jury found Pope Francis' former finance minister guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in the late 1990s, shortly after Pell became archbishop of Australia's second-largest city.
The 78-year-old was sentenced to six years in prison in March and is no longer a member of Francis' Council of Cardinals or a Vatican official. The Victoria state Court of Appeal rejected his appeal in August.
Pell is in a Melbourne prison, where a newspaper reported last month that he had been given a gardening job. He did not attend the High Court in Canberra to hear the decision Wednesday.
SNAP, an abuse victims’ support group, described the court’s decision as a blow to clergy abuse victims and to the Australian criminal justice system.
“We are disappointed that Cardinal George Pell and his lawyers will have yet another opportunity to attack and re-victimize the former choirboy,” SNAP spokesman Steven Spaner said in a statement.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which represents church leaders in Australia, hoped the appeal would be resolved quickly.
“This will prolong what has been a lengthy and difficult process, but we can only hope that the appeal will be heard as soon as reasonably possible and that the High Court’s judgment will bring clarity and a resolution for all,” Coleridge said in a statement.
The Vatican said it trusted the Australian legal system and noted in a statement that Pell had 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,” said a statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.
Two of the seven justices — Michelle Gordon and James Edelman — heard Pell’s application for an appeal and unanimously approved it for a hearing by the full bench. The court rejects around 90% of such applications.
The two justices took the unusual step of directing the full bench to hear Pell’s application for an appeal hearing rather than hear a full appeal, but lawyers agree the effect is similar: the court will consider Pell’s argument for why his convictions should be overturned.
It is not clear whether the court would hear his application for an appeal and his appeal simultaneously, which is what happened with his state appeals court hearing in June.
An appeal hearing cannot happen before the justices return from their summer break in early February.
Pell’s lawyers did not immediately respond on Wednesday when asked by The Associated Press if the cardinal would now apply to the High Court to be released from prison on bail.
Prof. Jeremy Gans, who heads Melbourne Law School, said the court’s decision improved his prospects of making a successful application for bail.
“If he did apply, he’s got some good arguments,” Gans said.
Those arguments could include that Pell is serving a relatively short sentence while the court’s verdict could be eight months away, his advanced age, health problems and the added dangers he faces behind bars from fellow inmates as a convicted pedophile, Gans said.
Pell's lawyers argued in their 12-page application for a High Court appeal that two state appeals court judges made error in dismissing his appeal in August. The judges made a mistake by requiring Pell to prove the abuse was impossible, rather than putting the onus of proof on prosecutors, the lawyers said.
They also said the two judges erred in finding the jury's guilty verdicts were reasonable. Pell's lawyers argued there was reasonable doubt about whether opportunity existed for the crimes to have occurred.
Pell's lawyers also argued that changes in law over the years since the crimes were alleged have increased the difficulty in testing sexual assault allegations.
They say Pell should be acquitted of all charges for several reasons, including inconsistencies in the accuser's version of events.
Prosecutors argued there is no basis for the appeal and that the Victorian courts made no errors.
Pell was largely convicted on the testimony of one victim. The second victim died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2014 when he was 31 without complaining that he had been abused.
Lawyer Vivienne Waller said she spoke on Wednesday to the victim, her client who cannot be identified, and he was “very respectful of the legal process.”
“I can understand that there are many survivors who might feel disappointed by the outcome and I can also understand that there are a lot of people who feel very deeply for my client and are concerned for his well-being and those sentiments are greatly appreciated,” Waller said.
The father of Pell’s dead victim was devastated by the court’s decision, his lawyer Lisa Flynn said.
"He was really hopeful that this would be over for him today because as the process goes on, and has gone on for some time, it is extremely retraumatizing for him," Flynn said. "Every appeal that is announced by Pell is a downturn. It brings up the raw emotions.”
The father, who cannot be named, intends to sue the church over his son’s abuse.
Clerical sexual abuse and the Catholic Church's handling of such cases worldwide have thrown Francis' papacy into turmoil.
In a little more than a year, the pope has acknowledged he made "grave errors" in Chile's worst cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile, and U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.
Pell must serve at least three years and eight months behind bars before he becomes eligible for parole. As a convicted pedophile, he is provided with extra protection from other inmates and spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.