MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia - The Australian High Court will decide whether it will hear an appeal in relation to the conviction of Cardinal George Pell of child sexual abuse charges.
The legal process surround the Pell case which has bitterly divided Australia will now continue on, possibly well into next year.
A 12-page application requesting the High Court to review the decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal, to reject an appeal over the jury's unanimous finding in the case, was lodged on Tuesday afternoon.
It is now up to the court to decide whether it will allow an appeal. If it does it will almost certainly not be heard until well into next year, and a decision would be unlikely until late 2020. As Pell is imprisoned, is 78 years of age and in poor health the high court judges may decide to escalate the case.
The Victorian Court of Appeal ruling that is being appealed, not the jury verdict, also revealed the appeal court was divided over the matter. Two judges, Anne Ferguson and Chris Maxwell, found the appeal should not be granted, however Judge Mark Weinberg was clearly of the view that it should have been granted.
Ferguson and Maxwell's findings were set out in around 100 pages, whereas Weinberg's was more than double that.
Pell's lawyers believe the appeal judges that rejected the appeal erred by setting the bar too high in accepting the prosecutor's case that he only had to prove that it was possible the alleged offences occurred, not the plausibility of whether they had.
Pell is also arguing over the reasonableness of the decision.
He was convicted in the aftermath of a royal commission which delved into the response by institutions into sexual abuse in Australia, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. Cardinal Pell was a key witness who was suspected to have known of the moving around of priests of whom claims of them molesting children had been made.
The Royal Commission concluded around 4,000 children were abused in the 1970s and 1980s in Catholic institutions including schools, boarding schools and orphanages. 30% of the abuse was made by priests, 32% by Christian brothers, 29% by lay teachers and others, and 7% by nuns, the commission found.
Pell, being the highest ranking Australian Catholic, became a target for the commission and survivors of sexual abuse. He was extensively questioned about the activities of former priest Gerald Ridsdale, who was a serial offender, a predator, who was moved from parish to parish. Pell who had lived with Ridsdale among others at one point, and who was an advisor to the bishop responsible for the allocations maintained he was not aware of Ridsdale's offending. Evidence was given that many others in the community, including police, a family doctor, and parents of abused children were aware, how could it be that he did not know? Pell however maintained he simply didn't.
In the early days of the commission, Victorian Police, began an investigation into Pell himself to establish whether he had personally abused children. At a committal hearing one of the investigating officers admitted the investigation had been established without any complaint against Pell being made. Under questioning, the detective admitted it was more than a year before it received a complaint - this after extensive advertising.
In 2015 a man in his 30s, a bartender at his local RSL club who was studying at university, approached police after he had heard of complaints being made against Pell by men who claimed they were molested as children at the Ballarat pool. He is said to have told police he was abused by Pell, in company with another choir boy, after Mass at the Melbourne Cathedral in 1996 or 1997. He said the other choir boy had died the year before.
This is the incident that finally resulted in charges being made against Pell. Details of the investigation were leaked to the media, and public opinion against Pell reached fever-pitch. The police confirmed they were investigating Pell but were seeking advice from the Victorian prosecutor before announcing whether charges would be laid. That advice was received, but has never been disclosed. Subsequently Victoria Police announced that charges would be laid. The decision was made by the police not the prosecutor, as the official statement said. "Advice was received and sought from the Office of Public Prosecutions, however ultimately the choice to charge Cardinal Pell was one that was made by Victoria Police," the statement said.
The matter went to trial last year, however a jury failed to reach a verdict. It has been widely reported the vote was 10-2 in favour of acquittal. A secret second trial then was ordered, secret so as jurors would not be influenced by the ensuing publicity. In December 2018 the jury in that trial unanimously convicted Pell. Because another trial relating to other offences was pending, that decision was not revealed until earlier this year, when the other charges were dropped by Victoria Police.
The subsequent appeal which brought a divided decision, but with the majority not granting the appeal, has led to the application to the High Court.
Many public commentators including News Corp journalist Andrew Bolt have been critical of the Pell decision, maintaining it has brought into doubt justice in Victoria.
With the baton now being handed to the highest court in the land, the intrigue goes on.