Understanding George Pell’s criminal proceedings and the impact on further legal action

On 7 April 2020, the High Court of Australia announced their decision to quash the child sexual abuse convictions of Cardinal George Pell (“Pell”). As a result, Pell’s prior convictions have been quashed and he has been released from jail.

The criminal proceedings in Pell’s matter are legally complex. This article aims to provide a brief overview of those proceedings and to inform survivors as to the impact of the High Court’s decision upon any civil claims for compensation against Pell.

Background as to Pell’s criminal proceedings

In 2018, a jury in the County Court of Victoria unanimously found Pell guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” of five instances of child sex offences.  The “beyond reasonable doubt” standard of proof in criminal proceedings is high, though does not require absolute proof.  It requires a determination that there could be no other logical explanation from the evidence other than that the accused had committed the crime.

Pell argued that his guilty verdicts could not be supported on the “whole of the evidence” and appealed same to the Victorian Court of Appeal.  The Court of Appeal was not required to determine whether Pell was guilty but whether it was “open to the jury” be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Pell was guilty.

It is expected that jury decisions cannot be undermined without exceptional circumstances. Pell was required to prove that the evidence precluded a guilty verdict. The standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” of the evidence in the proceedings is to be assessed as a whole. Every piece of evidence does not of itself have to be proved to that standard. It is open for the jury to convict Pell of guilt even if aspects of the evidence are imperfect. Two out of the three Court of Appeal judges were of the opinion that it was open to the jury to accept a verdict of guilty. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal dismissed Pell’s complaint.

The High Court then permitted Pell “special leave to appeal” based on his assertion that the Court of Appeal had misapplied the legal test, causing a miscarriage of justice. The High Court was not tasked with asking Pell whether he had committed the offences. They were tasked with determining whether the two majority judges in the Victorian Court of Appeal had incorrectly applied legal principles

The High Court concluded that an independent assessment of the evidence by the Court of Appeal should have concluded that there ought to have been sufficient doubt in the jury’s mind to preclude the guilty verdict from being “open” for acceptance.

The High Court also determined the Court of Appeal failed to consider whether there was a reasonable possibility the offending had not taken place (despite the complainant’s credibility) on the basis of witness testimony.

Further Royal Commission Reports to be released?

Whilst Pell may have been acquitted of his criminal charges by the High Court, his legal battles are far from over. Media reporting indicates that there are several civil claims for compensation on foot as against George Pell.

Of particular interest to survivors is the possibility of a redacted version of the Royal Commission’s (“the Commission”) report detailing their findings as to Pell’s evidence.

Whilst the Commission’s final report was handed down in 2017, the pages of their report detailing Pell’s evidence and their findings as to same, were heavily redacted. It is understood that Pell participated in several days of questioning by the Commission to ascertain his knowledge of offending by other priests including Gerald Risdale, Monsignor John Day, Ted Dowland and Peter Searson.

It is understood that the Commission also scrutinised the Catholic Church’s approach to sexual abuse cases during Pell’s time as Archbishop of Sydney. Now that Pell’s criminal proceedings have been finalised, it is expected that further unredacted findings by the Commission will be released to the public. However, it is expected same will still likely take several weeks.

Can civil claims still proceed against Pell?

Yes. As above, it is reported that there are already a number of civil claims on foot or shortly due to commence against Pell by those who allege abuse by him or assert he did nothing to prevent abuse committed by other priests.

Civil claims can proceed in the absence of a criminal conviction.

Whilst criminal cases require a high standard of proof, the threshold for a civil claim is lower and determined on the “balance of probabilities” (that is, whether something was more likely than not to have occurred).

Civil claims are focused on compensating survivors for the loss and injury they have suffered as a result of incidents of childhood abuse. Survivors are able to claim for many different types of compensation as a result of the injuries they have suffered from the abuse including economic loss, out of pocket expenses, pain and suffering and care and assistance. In addition, the institution or entity responsible for the abuse will also contribute to a portion of the survivor’s legal costs incurred during the claims process.

Do you need help?

We recognise that survivors of childhood abuse are strong individuals who deserve the right to seek compensation for the harm they have suffered. We also understand that it can be difficult to know which pathway is the right one to choose. It is important to speak with a lawyer who is experienced in institutional abuse matters prior to accepting any offer of settlement.

Turner Freeman has a number of lawyers located throughout Australia with experience in institutional abuse. We invite survivors to contact our Sydney office on (02) 8222 3333 for a confidential and obligation free discussion to help inform them as to their rights and legal options.