High drama and even higher stakes: it’s the moment of truth for George Pell

By John Ferguson
March 07, 2020

It is a measure of George Pell’s lot that he finds himself in notionally better surrounds but not necessarily better company.

The cardinal, still Australia’s most senior Catholic, will monitor next week’s High Court developments while in isolation in his ­relatively new home at Victoria’s maximum-security Barwon Prison, near Geelong.

Barwon is a hole that swallowed gangland murderer Carl Williams but it’s not quite as deep as Pell’s former holding cell in the centre of Melbourne.

Pell, 78, now has more room to move, with a more modern but still austere toilet, shower and general living facilities. He is served shoddy food and his main human contact is with the prison guards who bring him his medication for twin heart conditions.

It remains a life of deprivation.

Given his convictions, most people will be happy with Pell’s plight. For others who have followed the facts of the case closely, including the brightest minds in the law, next week’s High Court appeal will be a significant moment in Australian legal history.

There are deep divisions about whether Pell should even be in jail.

“If you look at all of the case law about unreasonable verdicts, it’s (the Pell convictions) right on the borderline of what’s reasonable and what isn’t,’’ Sydney University academic Andrew Dyer told ­Inquirer.

Dyer, who has co-authored a paper on the Pell case with the university’s Professor David Hamer, is not predicting in any way how the High Court will act. Nor is anyone else with any certainty.

But the paper, published in the Sydney Law Review, makes clear what many independent voices suspect: Pell’s convictions may be flawed.

Dyer and Hamer write that it appears open to the High Court to overturn the Pell verdicts on the basis of the cumulative effect of the evidence, but they doubt the court will make this finding.

They express concern about the impact that rejection of the Pell decision would have on the standing of juries.

Dyer and Hamer’s views are not black and white. They also make clear that the law allows for convictions based largely or solely on the complainant’s evidence and a different tack would “undermine the prohibition against child ­sexual assault’’.

This is a tick to the prosecution’s heavy reliance on the surviving choirboy, whose evidence was central to the Pell convictions.


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