Prosecutors drop second trial against Cardinal George Pell

pell 3 CNA Cardinal George Pell. | Alexey Gotovskiy/CN

Prosecutors have abandoned a planned second trial against Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted in December 2018 on five charges of the sexual abuse of minors.

Pell is reported to be filing an immediate appeal against the December verdict. The cardinal is expected to be sentenced in the coming days - as soon as Feb. 27.

Given the nature of the charges, it remains to be seen if the court will permit Pell to remain free on bail during the appeal process if a custodial sentence is imposed, as is expected.

After the planned second trial was dropped, an Australian court has lifted a months-long gag order preventing media from reporting on Pell's initial trial and conviction. Chief Judge Peter Kidd of the County Court of Victoria lifted the reporting ban February 26.

CNA initially reported the guilty verdict in December 2018.

Pell was alleged to have committed sexual abuse in 1996, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne, and when he was a priest in Ballarat during the 1970s.

His first trial, in which he was convicted, focused on the Melbourne allegations. The second trial, which has now been scuttled, was to focus on the Ballarat charges.

During preliminary hearings in March 2017, Pell's legal team successfully petitioned for the allegations to be heard in two separate trials. Other charges initially brought against Pell were dropped during pre-trial committal hearings.

Pell was found guilty Dec. 11 on five charges of sexual abuse of minors, stemming from charges that he sexually assaulted two former members of the Melbourne cathedral choir.

The verdict came after a five-week retrial, after a jury in an earlier trial failed to reach an unanimous verdict. In October 2018, multiple sources close to the case told CNA that the first trial had ended with the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of Pell.

The second jury took three days to find Pell guilty of sexually abusing two choristers in the Melbourne cathedral sacristy on an unspecified date in the second half of 1996.

The sexual abuse was supposedly committed by Pell against the two choristers immediately following a 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass in Melbourne's cathedral. Pell was accused of abusing both choir members in the same incident, and of subsequently assaulting one of the boys in a cathedral corridor.

CNA reported after Pell was convicted that the evidence advanced by prosecution relied entirely on a single accuser, one of the alleged victims.

The second alleged victim did not give evidence in court. The court did hear evidence that the man told his mother at least twice that he had not been a victim of sexual abuse, before he died of a drug overdose in 2014.

The other former choir member, who did testify  in court, reportedly told the deceased man's mother only after the man died that both had been abused by Pell.

According to the prosecution, Pell and the choir members "went missing" from a recessional procession at the end of a Mass celebrated by the archbishop in 1996. Pell is alleged to have abused the choristers somewhere within the cathedral sacristy immediately following that Mass.

The defense's legal team produced records that showed that during the period between August and December 1996, when the abuse was alleged to have taken place, Pell only celebrated the cathedral's 10:30 Sunday Mass twice. The court also heard witness testimony that Pell had been with guests immediately following Mass on one of the two Sundays.

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According to evidence given at the pre-trial hearings in March 2018, on both of the Sundays at which Pell said the 10:30 Mass, the choir held practices for the taping of a Christmas performance immediately following Mass, when the absence of two choristers would have been immediately noticed.

Evidence was also presented which showed that the layout of the cathedral did not match the narrative of the prosecution. The court had previous heard evidence from a pastoral associate at the cathedral, Rodney Dearing, who testified that Pell required help to remove his vestments after every Mass, and it would have been nearly impossible for the archbishop to expose his genitals while fully vested, or to commit other sexual acts in the vestments.

Dearing also told Victoria police that the layout of the cathedral did not align with the accusations.

"I can't understand, knowing the layout [of the cathedral] and how things worked, how it could have occurred," Dearing told police, according to Australian media reports filed before a gag order on the trial was instituted.

During Pell's trial, the judge reportedly excluded both the prosecution and the defense from disclosing to the jury or discussing in court anything which could bear upon the credibility of the accuser.

Court observers pointed to Pell's decision not to testify as one possible reason the decision went against him.

As Pell's trial began in June 2018, the Victoria Court ordered a sweeping gag order to be put in place at the request of the prosecution, who feared that news coverage of the first trial could impact the outcome of the second.

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The terms of the gag order prevented any news outlet from reporting on the progress or result of the trial if their coverage could be read or watched within Australia. CNA, along with some other global news outlets, reported on the trial in spite of the order, while restricting access from within Australia to some reports.

The order remained in place following Pell's conviction, pending the second trial on the Ballarat accusations, which have now been dropped. The cardinal is expected to be sentenced next month.

Prior to the institution of the gag order, questions were raised by Australian media and legal figures about the possibility that jury pools could be tainted by years of negative coverage of Pell.

In other Australian states, high-profile cases like Pell's have the option of being tried by a judge only, without a jury, called a bench trial. Victoria, where Pell is on trial, is one of the only jurisdictions in Australia not to have this option.

On Dec. 13, two days after the Pell conviction, Victoria state attorney general Jill Hennessy told the Australian newspaper The Age that she had asked her department to examine the option of judge-only trials in high profile cases, where an impartial jury might be difficult to find.

That decision followed the exoneration of former Adelaide archbishop Philip Wilson, whose conviction for failing to report child sexual abuse was overturned by a judge on appeal.

The Vatican had declined to comment on Pell's conviction, citing respect for the gag order. On Dec. 12, then-Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters "the Holy See has the utmost respect for the Australian courts. We are aware there is a suppression order in place and we respect that order."

Pell has been on leave from his position as prefect of the Holy See's Secretariat for the Economy since 2017. Pell asked Pope Francis to allow him to step back from his duties to travel home to Australia to defend himself against the charges, which he has consistently denied.

Prior to his appointment to the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014, Pell served as the Archbishop of Sydney.

In October, Pope Francis removed Pell, along with Cardinal Javier Errazuriz and Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, from the C9 Council of Cardinals charged with helping the pope draft a new constitution for the Holy See's governing structure.

This story is developing and has been updated.

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