Australian High Court Quashes Child Sex-Abuse Conviction, says the Evidence did not establish Guilt to the requisite Standard of Proof

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Pell v. The Queen [2020] HCA 12, was a special leave to appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria. The facts of the case were that the accused was charged with five child sexual assault offences committed during the year 1996 and 1997 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he was the Archbishop. The specific charges were one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of indecent act with a child under 16. The case was first dealt by the jury in the County Court of Victoria, which arrived on a verdict only on its second trial.

The jury found him guilty of the charges and sentenced him to 6 years’ imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 3 years and 8 months. The accused sought an appeal against the convictions before the Court of Appeal on three grounds. The appeal was dismissed by the Court.  In September 2019, the accused applied for the appeal to the High Court against the decision of the Court of Appeal and in November 2019, the appeal was referred to be heard by a Full Court. The High Court heard the application on 11th and 12th March 2020.

Arguments of the Applicant

The Counsel for the applicant filed the appeal before the High Court on two grounds. The first ground was that there was an error in the findings by the Court of Appeal that their belief in Complainant required the applicant to establish that the commission of the offence was impossible.. Second ground was that the majority of the Court of Appeal did not find the conviction as unreasonable, although one of the dissenting Honour, Weinberg JA remarked that in order for the conviction of the applicant, the odds against the complainant’s account needs to be substantive and that reasonable doubt to the applicant’s guilt should be considered.

Arguments of the Respondent

The respondents stated that the assaults had occurred after the victims had entered the priests’ sacristy, bowed to the crucifix and before other activities in the sacristy commenced. They continued by stating that there is no precise time period for the interval and varied depending on the number of people in the Church.

Analysis of the High Court of Australia

The Hon’ble Court observed that the Court of Appeal failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offence had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt. The Court also found the following inconsistencies with the complainant’s evidence and the evidence of the opportunity witnesses;

  • the applicant’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass;
  • the established and historical Catholic church practice that required that the applicant, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral; and
  • the continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for 10 to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass.

The Court held that the Jury had only taken the complainant’s evidence as credible and failed to pay heed to the evidence of the other witnesses in order to provide the accused with a reasonable doubt with regard to the commission of the crime. With respect to the second incident, the Hon’ble Court held that it is impossible to take into account the narrative that a  group of choristers, including adults, were so engaged with moving towards the robing room that they did not notice the Archbishop of Melbourne dressed “in his full regalia” moving through the procession and pinning a 13 years old boy to the wall. The Court also observed that the absence of a formal report with respect to the incident is also a major failure. The Court thus concluded that in both the incidents the account of the Complainant was not supported by substantive evidence.

Court’s Decision

In light of the above findings, the Honorable High Court of Australia, held that the Jury should have considered the reasonable doubt that the applicant is not guilty of the offences charged in both the incidents. The Court remarked that in case of the applicant’s convictions, there was, consistently with the words used in Chidiac v The Queen (1991) 171 CLR 432 at 444 and M v The Queen (1994) 181 CLR 487 at 494, “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof’’. The Honorable Court thus quashed the convictions against the applicant and acquitted him.


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