Australia will give Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman ever to be criminally prosecuted for sexual abuse, a last chance to overturn his conviction, the Australian High Court ruled on Wednesday.
Earlier this year, Pell was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison for molesting two choir boys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990’s. In August, the Victoria state Court of Appeal rejected his appeal in August in a 2-1 ruling.
Pell’s prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of one victim. The second victim died in 2014 of a heroin overdose when he was 31, without ever having complained that he had been abused.
Pell’s defense argued in their High Court appeal application that the two Victoria judges made an error in dismissing his appeal in August by requiring that Pell prove the abuse could not have taken place as described, rather than putting the burden of proof on the prosecution.
At the time, the dissenting Victoria justice, Mark Weinberg, warned of a “significant possibility” that Pell is innocent, explaining that he found it “impossible to accept” the sole accuser’s testimony, which, uncorroborated, may have been “concocted.”
Prosecutors wrote in their brief to the High Court that the defense was asking for the application of established principles which already had been carefully and thoroughly explored by the state appeals court.
In a brief statement issued by the High Court, two judges said Cardinal Pell’s application would be referred to the full court and did not disclose a reason. The court rejects around 90 percent of applications.
The appeal will not be heard for several months and must wait until at least February, when the justices return from their summer break.
Pell did not attend the High Court in Canberra to hear the decision on Wednesday and is currently in prison in Melbourne, where he reportedly has been given a gardening job. As a convicted pedophile, he spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement and is barred from celebrating Mass.
On Wednesday, the Vatican released a statement expressing “trust in the Australian justice system,” noting that Cardinal Pell has “always maintained his innocence” and reaffirming the Holy See’s closeness to victims of clerical sex abuse. In its own statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said it hoped an appeal would be heard as soon as possible and that the High Court’s judgement would bring clarity and resolution to “what has been a lengthy and difficult process.”