CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian High Court has agreed to hear an appeal bid by Cardinal George Pell, a convicted pedophile who is serving a six-year jail sentence for child sex abuse.
Pell’s lawyers had filed a 12-page application for leave to appeal in September to the highest court in the Australian judicial system in an effort to overturn the conviction.
On Wednesday morning, a panel of two High Court justices, Michelle Gordon and James Edelman, agreed that the matter be referred to the full bench of the court “for argument as on an appeal.”
“The parties will be made aware of the directions necessary for undertaking that hearing,” Gordon said in a two-sentence directive during Wednesday’s court proceedings at the High Court in Canberra.
Pell’s lawyers will now have to prepare and lodge a submission for the appeal, which will be heard by the full bench of seven justices in the High Court at a later date, most likely only next year.
Technically, Pell has not won the right to appeal since the full bench appeal hearing will consider both the application for special leave to appeal, and the appeal itself, argued at the same time.
The Court of Appeals in Melbourne heard his first appeal in a similar way in June. Ten weeks later, the three justices handed down a majority two-to-one decision rejecting Pell’s appeal and upholding the conviction.
The former Vatican treasurer and one-time close adviser to Pope Francis was convicted by a 12-member jury in December of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys at a Melbourne Cathedral in the mid-1990s. He was sentenced in March to six years in prison.
Pell, 78, continues to maintain his innocence. He is currently in solitary confinement in the Melbourne Assessment Prison and did not attend the Wednesday hearing at the High Court in Australia’s capital, Canberra.
The High Court application remains Pell’s last chance for freedom.
None of the legal representatives was present at Wednesday hearing.
Pell and his lawyers declined to comment Wednesday since the matter was still before the courts.
The one remaining of two victims in the Pell case also did not say anything. “He will await the outcome of the application for leave/appeal which we understand will be heard in the first few months of next year,” his lawyer told dpa.
SNAP, a clergy sexual abuse survivors’ network, said Wednesday they were “disappointed” that Pell and his lawyers “will have yet another opportunity to attack and revictimize the former choirboy.”
“We are especially dismayed at the aspersions of credibility cast on the survivor after a full jury and the majority of appellate judges ruled to the contrary,” they said in a statement.
Pell’s legal saga started in 2017 after Victoria Police charged him on summons to face multiple historical child sex abuse offences.
Most of the allegations were thrown out in the lower court, with only two cases making it to the County Court of Victoria.
Only one case, known as the cathedral case, made it to the jury trial. The other, known as the swimming pool case, was abandoned.
The case against the cardinal has relied mostly on the testimony of a former choirboy who told the court Pell sexually assaulted him and his friend after he caught them drinking altar wine in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral after a Sunday Mass at the end of 1996, just a few months after Pell had become the Archbishop of Melbourne.
The other victim, who had not told anyone about the sexual abuse, died in 2014 after a drug overdose, which his father relates to the Pell incident.
An earlier trial in September last year had been dismissed because the jury could not reach a verdict.
In the August appeal, two judges backed the jury’s verdict and found the victim “very compelling,” while the dissenting judge sided with Pell, saying he found the victim’s account “contained discrepancies” and that “there is a significant possibility that the Cardinal may not have committed the offences.”
In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has been embroiled in a global child sexual abuse scandal, but Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican figure to be convicted of and jailed for the crimes.
The Vatican did not comment immediately. But they have banned Pell already from public ministry or having contact with children.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said Pell had exercised his right and the court had determined that the appeal “warrants its consideration.”
“This will prolong what has been a lengthy and difficult process, but we can only hope that the appeal will be heard as soon as reasonably possible and that the high court’s judgement will bring clarity and a resolution for all,” Coleridge said on Wednesday.
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