Vatican could try Pell under Church law

Cardinal George Pell is considering appealing to the High Court. Photo: Reuters
Cardinal George Pell is considering appealing to the High Court. Photo: Reuters

George Pell could face a separate trial in the Vatican after the Catholic cardinal lost an appeal against his conviction for child sex offences.

When the 78-year-old disgraced religious leader from Australia was found guilty by a Melbourne court in December last year, the Vatican announced he would be subject to a canonical trial.

But on Wednesday, The Vatican said it would wait for a possible High Court appeal before taking action.

Victoria's Court of Appeal has upheld his December conviction for the rape of a 13-year-old choirboy and sexual assault of another at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and President Chris Maxwell on Wednesday ruled 2-1 to overrule Justice Mark Weinberg's judgement for his acquittal.

Pell sat emotionless as the decision was handed down in front of a packed courtroom, but his defence team later said in a statement he was "obviously disappointed".

"However his legal team will thoroughly examine the judgement in order to determine a special leave application to the High Court," the statement said.

The Vatican claims the right to try any Catholic priest accused of crimes to ascertain the truth of the charges under Church laws. In Vatican terms, such trials are not "secret" but "reserved".

There were no reports on the Vatican's canonical trial of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick until the final announcement in 2018 that he had been found guilty of sexual abuse and stripped of the cardinalate.

A professor of canon law at a Roman pontifical university, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said such a trial would try to obtain all evidence from Melbourne and could seek more, a process which would take about a year.

There are diverse opinions in Vatican circles. Some insist there should be canonical trials, partly to avoid states dictating to the Church.

Others say the Church should immediately accept the decision of courts of countries with a stable democracy.

Unlike some other cases, it is hard to find anyone in the Vatican - even among those who clashed with Pell - who believe the charges against him.

"It's an awkward case for the Vatican because a lot of people would think a canonical trial is just a way of contrasting the civil trial, especially if it reaches a different verdict," says Francis X Rocca, the Vatican correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

"Another issue is that if there is a papal election before Pell turns 80 in two years time, will Pell be allowed to participate?"

Some Vatican officials criticised Pope Francis for choosing Pell to head the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy because of the sexual abuse allegations against him, even though the accusations were not made until after his Vatican appointment.

Francis has pushed through a global system of reporting and combating clerical sexual abuse but has been criticised for errors of judgement and lack of transparency on this issue.


Meanwhile, Pell has spent his first night back in jail. His lawyers have 28 days to file the application, if they determine there are grounds to push ahead. That application needs to be granted before the High Court can hear any appeal.

A single judge would hear the application, considering factors including whether the case is a matter of public importance, whether the decision relates to a matter of law, or if it is in the interests of the administration of justice.

One of Pell's victims died in 2014, while the other gave evidence at his trial. In their 325-page decision on Wednesday, Justices Ferguson and Maxwell found that man, now in his 30s, came across as truthful.

"He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution," Justice Ferguson said.

But in his dissenting judgement Justice Weinberg highlighted inconsistencies in his evidence.

"Having had regard to the whole of the evidence led at trial, and having deliberated long and hard over this matter, I find myself in the position of having a genuine doubt as to the applicant's guilt," he said.

The man said after the decision that he felt a responsibility to come forward after the death of the other victim, his childhood friend.

"The experiences I have been through have helped me understand what is truly important," he said.

The judges also ruled that Pell was not required to be physically present in front of the jury pool when officially asked how he pleaded. Presence via videolink, as occurred, was sufficient.

Pell did not appeal his six-year sentence, so it stands, along with a minimum three years and eight months before he's eligible for parole.

The earliest Pell can be released is October 2022, when he will be 81.

"However his legal team will thoroughly examine the judgement in order to determine a special leave application to the High Court," a statement said.