Pell v The Queen
High Court of Australia
April 07, 2020
Today, the High Court granted special leave to appeal against a decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria and unanimously allowed the appeal. The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant's guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.
On 11 December 2018, following a trial by jury in the County Court of Victoria, the applicant, who was Archbishop of Melbourne at the time of the alleged offending, was convicted of one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 years and four charges of committing an act of indecency with or in the presence of a child under the age of 16 years. This was the second trial of these charges, the jury at the first trial having been unable to agree on its verdicts. The prosecution case, as it was left to the jury, alleged that the offending occurred on two separate occasions, the first on 15 or 22 December 1996 and the second on 23 February 1997. The incidents were alleged to have occurred in and near the priests' sacristy at St Patrick's Cathedral in East Melbourne, following the celebration of Sunday solemn Mass. The victims of the alleged offending were two Cathedral choirboys aged 13 years at the time of the events.
The applicant sought leave to appeal against his convictions before the Court of Appeal. On 21 August 2019 the Court of Appeal granted leave on a single ground, which contended that the verdicts were unreasonable or could not be supported by the evidence, and dismissed the appeal.The Court of Appeal viewed video-recordings of a number of witnesses' testimony, including that of the complainant. The majority, Ferguson CJ and Maxwell P, assessed the complainant to be a compelling witness. Their Honours went on to consider the evidence of a number of "opportunity witnesses", who had described the movements of the applicant and others following the conclusion of Sunday solemn Mass in a way that was inconsistent with the complainant's account. Their Honours found that no witness could say with certainty that these routines and practices were never departed from and concluded that the jury had not been compelled to entertain a reasonable doubt as to the applicant's guilt. Weinberg JA dissented, concluding that, by reason of the unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses, the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have had a reasonable doubt.