Prefect emeritus of the Secretariat for the Economy
Pell in 2012
|Appointed||24 February 2014|
|Term ended||24 February 2019|
|Successor||Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves|
|Other posts||Cardinal priest of Santa Maria Domenica Mazzarello (2003–present)|
|Ordination||16 December 1966|
by Gregorio Pietro Agagianian
|Consecration||21 May 1987|
by Frank Little
|Created cardinal||21 October 2003|
by John Paul II
|Born||8 June 1941|
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
("Be not afraid")
|Coat of arms|
Ordination history of
|Reference style||His Eminence|
|Spoken style||Your Eminence|
George Pell cardinal of the Catholic Church. He served as the inaugural prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy between 2014 and 2019, and was a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers between 2013 and 2018. Ordained a priest in 1966 and bishop in 1987, he was made a cardinal in 2003. Pell served as the eighth Archbishop of Sydney (2001–2014), the seventh Archbishop of Melbourne (1996–2001) and an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne (1987–1996). He has also been an author, columnist and public speaker. Since 1996, Pell has maintained a high public profile on a wide range of issues, while retaining an adherence to Catholic orthodoxy.(born 8 June 1941) is an Australian
Pell worked as a priest in rural Victoria and in Melbourne and also chaired the aid organisation Caritas Australia (part of Caritas Internationalis) from 1988 to 1997. He was appointed as a delegate to the Australian Constitutional Convention in 1998, received the Centenary Medal from the Australian government in 2003 and was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005. During his tenure as Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell set up the "Melbourne Response" protocol in 1996 to investigate and deal with complaints of child sexual abuse in the archdiocese. The protocol was the first of its kind in the world but has been subjected to a variety of criticisms.
In 2020, the High Court of Australia overturned the County Court of Victoria's 2018 conviction of Pell on charges of sexual offences and set aside the orders of the Victorian Court of Appeal rejecting appeal. Pell remains under separate investigation by the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for these allegations of abuse.
Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed its findings on Pell in 2020, concluding that Pell knew of child sexual abuse by clergy by the 1970s, but did not take adequate action to address it. Pell responded that the commission's views "are not supported by evidence".
Pell was born on 8 June 1941 in Ballarat, Victoria, to George Arthur and Margaret Lillian (née Burke) Pell. His father was a non-practising Anglican whose ancestors were from Leicestershire in England; he was also a heavyweight boxing champion. His mother was a devout Catholic of Irish descent.:21 As a child, Pell underwent 24 operations to remove an abscess in his throat.:25
Pell attended Loreto Convent and St Patrick's College (from which he matriculated) in Ballarat. At St Patrick's, Pell played Australian rules football as a ruckman on the first XVIII from 1956 to 1959. He signed with the Richmond Football Club in 1959 and played for the club in the VFL reserves. However, his ambitions later turned to the priesthood. Speaking of his decision to become a priest, Pell once said, "To put it crudely, I feared and suspected and eventually became convinced that God wanted me to do His work, and I was never able to successfully escape that conviction.":34
In 1960, he began his studies for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College, then located in Werribee.[a] Pell continued to play football and served as class prefect in his second and third years.:41–42 In 1963, he was assigned to continue his studies at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. He was ordained to the diaconate on 15 August 1966.
On 16 December 1966, Pell was ordained a priest by Cardinal Gregorio Pietro Agagianian at St. Peter's Basilica. He received a Licentiate of Sacred Theology degree from the Pontificia Università Urbaniana in 1967, and continued his studies at the University of Oxford where he earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in church history in 1971 with a thesis entitled "The exercise of authority in early Christianity from about 170 to about 270". During his studies at Oxford he also served as a chaplain to Catholic students at Eton College.
In 1971, he returned to Australia and was assigned to serve as an assistant priest in Swan Hill, where he remained for two years. He then served at a parish in Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983, becoming administrator of the parish of Bungaree in 1984. In 1982, he earned a Master of Education degree from Monash University in Melbourne. During his tenure in Ballarat East and Bungaree, he also served as Episcopal Vicar for Education (1973–84), director of the Aquinas campus of the Institute of Catholic Education (1974–84) and principal of the Institute of Catholic Education (1981–84). He was also editor of Light, the newspaper of the Diocese of Ballarat, from 1979 to 1984.
Pell was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne and titular Bishop of Roman Catholic Diocese of Scala (Italy) on 30 March 1987. He received his episcopal consecration on 21 May 1987 from Archbishop Frank Little, with bishops Ronald Mulkearns and Joseph O'Connell serving as co-consecrators. He served as Bishop for the Southern Region of Melbourne (1987–96). During this time, he was a parish priest in Mentone.
Pell was named seventh Archbishop of Melbourne on 16 July 1996, receiving the pallium from Pope John Paul II on 29 June 1997. He was later appointed eighth Archbishop of Sydney on 26 March 2001 and again received the pallium from John Paul on 29 June 2001.
Pell was a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 1990 to 1995 and a member from 2002. From 1990 to 2000 he was a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In April 2002, John Paul II named him President of the Vox Clara commission to advise the Congregation for Divine Worship on English translations of liturgical texts. On 21 December 2002 he was appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, having previously served as a consultor to the council. On 22 September 2012, Pell was appointed a member of the Congregation for Bishops.
As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell maintained a high public profile on a wide range of issues, while retaining a strict adherence to Catholic orthodoxy; with some dispute over the issue of Catholics and "primacy of conscience".
In 2001, he argued: "We must not allow the situation to deteriorate as it had in Elijah's time, 850 years before Christ, where monotheism was nearly swamped by the aggressive paganism of the followers of Baal." In 2010, on reviewing the movie Avatar, he wrote: "Worship of the powerful forces of nature is half right, a primitive stage in the movement towards acknowledging the one: the single Transcendent God, above and beyond nature. It is a symptom of our age that Hollywood is pumping out this old-fashioned pagan propaganda."
On 28 September 2003, Pope John Paul II announced that he would appoint Pell and 28 others to the College of Cardinals. In the consistory of 21 October he was made cardinal priest of Santa Maria Domenica Mazzarello. With Pell as cardinal, Australia had for the first time, three cardinals eligible to participate in a papal election: Pell, Edward Bede Clancy, and Edward Idris Cassidy.
Pell was one of the cardinal electors in 2005 who participated in the 2005 papal conclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. He is reported to have served as an unauthorised "campaign manager" for Ratzinger. Pell was mentioned as a possible successor to Benedict XVI as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In February 2007, Pell instituted new guidelines for family members speaking at funerals. He said that, "on not a few occasions, inappropriate remarks glossing over the deceased's proclivities (drinking prowess, romantic conquests etc) or about the Church (attacking its moral teachings) have been made at funeral Masses." Under Pell's guidelines, the eulogy must never replace the celebrant's homily, which should focus on the scripture readings selected, God's compassion, and the resurrection of Jesus.
Pell lobbied for the successful Sydney bid to host the 2008 World Youth Day, which brought Benedict XVI on his first papal visit to Australia. The event drew approximately half a million young people from 200 countries, and one million people came to see the Pope. On 19 July 2008, Benedict issued his first public apology to victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
In their 2010 Good Friday sermons, both Pell and his Anglican counterpart Archbishop Peter Jensen attacked atheism. Both men were also closely aligned on policy issues and Jensen launched Pell's biography.
On 18 September 2012, Pell was named by Benedict XVI to be one of the papally appointed Synod Fathers for the October 2012 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.
Pell was the only cardinal from Oceania to take part in the 2013 papal conclave. At that conclave, he was thought to be organising votes on behalf of Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, the favourite candidate of the Italian cardinals.
Following his election, Pope Francis named Pell, the only cardinal available to represent Oceania, one of eight members to advise the Pope on reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, called the Roman Curia; they were appointed to five-year terms.
In February 2014, Pell was appointed to be the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. In this role, Pell is responsible for the annual budget of the Holy See and the Vatican.
In July 2014 Pell, with the consent of Pope Francis, had the Ordinary Section of Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) transferred to the Secretariat for the Economy to enable the Secretariat to exercise economic control and vigilance over the agencies of the Holy See. It was also announced that remaining staff of APSA would begin to focus exclusively on its role as a treasury for the Holy See and the Vatican City State.
Following the confirmation of the mission of the Institute for the Works of Religion's (also known as the Vatican Bank) by the Pope on 7 April 2014 the IOR announced plans for the next stage of development. The Council of Cardinal Advisers, the Secretariat for the Economy, the Supervisory Commission of Cardinals, and the current IOR Board of Superintendence agreed that this plan will be carried out by a new executive team led by Jean-Baptiste de Franssu.
In November 2014 the Secretariat for the Economy distributed a new handbook to all Vatican offices outlining financial management policies that would go into effect on 1 January 2015. The manual was endorsed by the Council for the Economy and approved by the Pope. "The purpose of the manual is very simple", said Pell, "it brings Financial Management practices in line with international standards and will help all Entities and Administrations of the Holy See and the Vatican City State prepare financial reports in a consistent and transparent manner." In 2015, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio questioned the scope of the authority given to the Secretariat and to Pell himself, specifically the consolidation of management and not the demand for transparency.
On 12 December 2018, the Vatican announced that Pell was one of three "more elderly" cardinals who were to leave the Pope's Council of Cardinal Advisers after a five-year term. The three were also thanked by the Pope for their service.
Pell's five-year term as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy expired on 24 February 2019.
Immediately following Pell's initial conviction for sexual abuse in February 2019, the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) initiated its own investigation of the charges against him,[b] but the Vatican also said the CDF would await a "definitive judgment" from the Australian courts in the case. The Pope reaffirmed at that time that Pell was "forbidden to exercise public ministry and ... from having contact in any way or form with minors", restrictions that had been in place since Pell's return to Australia in July 2017. When Pell's conviction was upheld in August 2019, the Vatican again said its review would wait for Pell to exhaust his appeals. When Pell's convictions were quashed in April 2020, a Vatican spokesperson said that ruling would contribute to the CDF's investigation which would "draw its conclusions on the basis of the norms of canon law".
In January 2010, Pell experienced cardiac problems during his Vatican visit, and in February had a pacemaker fitted in a Rome hospital. In 2015, Pell's doctors judged his heart condition serious enough to prevent air travel from Italy to Australia to appear before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He was expected to be well enough to travel in February 2016. However, he was excused from giving evidence in person by commission chair Justice Peter McClellan, based on a two-page medical report submitted by Pell's lawyers. He testified from a hotel in Rome through a video link up. In December 2018, he underwent knee surgery. He recovered sufficiently to stop using a cane by June 2019. In February 2019, when he was taken into custody following his conviction, an assessment of his mental and physical health concluded he was healthy enough to be kept in HM Melbourne Assessment Prison.
In the Australian context, Pell is regarded as progressive on many social issues but a conservative on matters of faith and morals. He has often been wary of what he calls the "callousness" of unrestrained capitalism. He has written that a Catholic is someone who is not only a person of personal conscience but "is someone who believes Christ is Son of God, accepts His teachings and lives a life of worship, service and duty in the community. Catholics are not created by the accident of birth to remain only because their tribe has an interesting history."
In 2009 Pell supported, in the abstract but not as a proposal for immediate application, mandatory celebration of the Canon of the Mass with the orientation of the priest ad orientem (towards the east), facing in the same direction as the congregation. "There's nothing like a consensus in favour of that at the moment", he said. "I think I would be in favour of it because it makes it patently clear that the priest is not the centre of the show, that this is an act of worship of the one true God, and the people are joining with the priest for that."
Adam and Eve are terms – what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.
In 2005 Pell supported the view that the ordination of women as priests is impossible according to the church's divine constitution and said that abandoning the tradition of clerical celibacy would be a "serious blunder".
Pell said that the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to retire in 2013 could set a precedent which may be a problem for future leaders. He thought Benedict's decision to step down had destabilised the church and some of those surrounding the Pope had failed to support him in his ministry. "He was well aware that this is a break with tradition [and] slightly destabilising", Pell said. According to him, the Pope was a better theologian than he was a leader.
In response to the statement that he had criticised Benedict XVI, Pell confirmed he was stating what the Pope already mentioned himself, and his comments were "not breaking any ground". During a youth conference in Parramatta, Bishop Anthony Fisher confirmed that Pell was merely "stating the pros and cons of the Pope's decision" and those who said his comments were critical were taking him out of context.
Pell has criticised the bipartisan policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia and called for "empathy and compassion" towards displaced peoples. Pell said that while a policy of deterrence was justifiable, the practice of the policy was coming at too great a "moral cost". Describing conditions in some of Australia's mandatory detention camps in 2001 as "pretty tight and miserable" and "no place for women and children", Pell called for investigation of any maltreatment of detainees and said that, while Australia has the right to regulate the number of refugees it accepts, as a rich and prosperous country, it can "afford to be generous" and must treat humanely those refugees who reach Australia.
Pell is a climate change denier. In a 2006 speech he said that "hysterical and extreme claims" about the natural environment were the result of the "pagan emptiness" of Western culture. He said: "In the past pagans sacrificed animals and even humans in vain attempts to placate capricious and cruel gods. Today they demand a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions." In a 2007 article for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, Pell wrote that while climate had changed, he was "certainly sceptical about extravagant claims of impending man-made climatic catastrophes, because the evidence is insufficient".
Responding to the Anglican bishop and environmentalist George Browning, who told the Anglican Church of Australia's general synod that Pell was out of touch with the Catholic Church as well as with the general community, Pell stated:
Radical environmentalists are more than up to the task of moralising their own agenda and imposing it on people through fear. They don't need church leaders to help them with this, although it is a very effective way of further muting Christian witness. Church leaders in particular should be allergic to nonsense ... I am certainly sceptical about extravagant claims of impending man-made climatic catastrophes. Uncertainties on climate change abound ... my task as a Christian leader is to engage with reality, to contribute to debate on important issues, to open people's minds, and to point out when the emperor is wearing few or no clothes.
It’s got many, many interesting elements. There are parts of it which are beautiful. But the church has no particular expertise in science ... the church has got no mandate from the Lord to pronounce on scientific matters. We believe in the autonomy of science.
Pell publicly expressed concern regarding population decline in July 2008 in a homily for the opening Mass of the World Youth Day in Sydney, in response to comments made by Pope Benedict XVI regarding climate change. While travelling to Sydney for the event, Benedict stated in a brief interview that Catholics and others must commit "to finding an ethical way to change our way of life and ways to respond to these great challenges" regarding climate change. Pell stated in his homily that mankind has a duty not "to damage and destroy or ruthlessly use the environment at the expense of future generations", but expressed scepticism regarding human activity causing climate change. Pell stated that the "slowing population growth and apathy towards God are the biggest challenges facing the church" and that Western nations faced a population crisis fuelled by "ruthless commercial forces", such that "No western country is producing enough babies to keep the population stable, no western country." Pell's views were contested in the Australian context by the environmental group Sustainable Population Australia, whose media release of 14 July 2008 cited Australian Bureau of Statistics figures that Australia had "a population growth rate of 1.6%, higher than the global average, with twice as many births as deaths...". Pell's views were contested in a global context by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who argued that "The planet, everyone can feel, is just right at the limits right now in terms of food, in terms of energy supply, in terms of land use." Sachs also suggested that world population projections "are already too high at around an extra 2.5 billion people by 2050".
Pell has written of a need to "deepen friendship and understanding" with Muslims in the post–September 11 environment and has said that though there is a continuing struggle throughout the Muslim world between moderates and men of violence, he believes that, in Australia, "the moderates are in control". In 2004, speaking to the Acton Institute on the problems of "secular democracy", Pell drew a parallel between Islam and communism: "Islam may provide in the 21st century, the attraction that communism provided in the 20th, both for those that are alienated and embittered on the one hand and for those who seek order or justice on the other."
In February 2006, addressing Catholic business leaders in Naples, Florida, Pell stated: "Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for far-reaching renovation is severely limited." He doubted that Islam possesses the capacity for theological development because "In the Muslim understanding, the Koran comes directly from God, unmediated. The Bible, in contrast, is a product of human co-operation with divine inspiration." In 2012 and 2013, Pell hosted Iftar dinners to mark the end of the Islamic celebration of Ramadan. The Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohamed, expressed his gratitude and appreciation to Pell on behalf of Muslims for hosting the dinner. Pell said during the 2012 dinner that such gatherings are one of the fruits of tolerance that flourishes in Australian society and is a sign of respect for diversity, stating:
We are all called to be instruments of peace and harmony among aggressors and those who practice terrorism although we worship the one God in different ways... We gather united in our plans for respect and friendship.
Pell has participated in many interfaith dialogues and celebrations involving Jewish people. In 2001, he told one such audience at Mandelbaum House that he had come from a strongly pro-Jewish family and of being saddened during his studies of history to find Christian ill-treatment of Jews. Pell spoke of the need to remember the Holocaust and of his visits to concentration camps and of his support for the right of the state of Israel to exist. He praised the role of Vatican II and of Pope John Paul II in advancing the cause of Christian-Jewish dialogue and co-operation. Pell also spoke in praise of the Jewish psalms as "a body of prayerful literature" unequalled in any other tradition and singled out the Jewish prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel as authors for whom he has a deep love and Elijah as one whom he views as highly significant. Pell called on Christian and Jewish leaders alike to speak together and respectfully listen to each other, saying of the Christian-Jewish relationship:
During the last 30 or 40 years there has been a significant reduction in the amount of Christian anti-Semitism. We thank God for that. To adapt to our circumstances the word of Martin Luther King "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly". Our fortunes, as brothers, are inextricably linked.
During a 2012 televised panel discussion including himself and Richard Dawkins on the Australian TV program Q&A, Pell stated that he had "a great admiration for the Jews" and repeatedly condemned Adolf Hitler. During the course of the discussion, ABC moderator Tony Jones sought to infer anti-Semitism in Pell's remarks regarding the relative intellectual development of ancient Jewish society with that of great powers like Egypt, as well as in Pell's comment that Germany was punished for its role in the Second World War.
In responding to a series of questions by Jones as to why God would "randomly decide to provide proof of his existence to a small group of Jews 2,000 years ago", Pell said that, while the intellectual life of the ancient Jews was not the equal of the surrounding great powers like Egypt, Persia and Chaldea, "Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers". Jones cross examined Pell over his use of the word "intellectual" and Pell said (in reference to Biblical times) that "the little Jewish people, they were originally shepherds. They were stuck. They're still stuck between these great powers."
- Pell: That's a mighty question. He helped probably through secondary causes for the Jews to escape and continue. It is interesting through these secondary causes probably no people in history have been punished the way the Germans were. It is a terrible mystery.
- Moderator: There would be a very strong argument saying that the Jews of Europe suffered worse than the Germans.
- Pell: Yes, that might be right. Certainly the suffering in both I mean the Jews there was no reason why they should suffer.
Pell's remarks led to a clarification from his office, reported by The Times of Israel as an apology. Pell said, "My commitment to friendship with the Jewish community, and my esteem for the Jewish faith is a matter of public record, and the last thing I would want to do is give offence to either" and that the Holocaust was "a crime unique in history for the death and suffering it caused and its diabolical attempt to wipe out an entire people."
Pell has received much attention for his attitudes to sexuality issues, particularly homosexuality. When installed as Archbishop of Sydney in May 2001, he said that "Christian teaching on sexuality is only one part of the Ten Commandments, of the virtues and vices, but it is essential for human wellbeing and especially for the proper flourishing of marriages and families, for the continuity of the human race."
Pell says that, outside exceptional circumstances such as relationships involving physical abuse, it is better for individuals and for society if couples do not divorce, particularly where children are involved. In 2001, ABC radio's The World Today reported that Pell wanted a return to a divorce system based on the fault of one spouse. Pell told the program that, in an effort to "focus attention on the damage, personal and financial, that unfortunately often follows from divorce" he had prepared a list for public consideration of possible penalties to discourage divorce (particularly where fault by one party was involved); as well as benefits to support couples who stayed together.
In 1990, Pell stated publicly that while he recognised that homosexuality existed, such activity was nevertheless wrong and "for the good of society it should not be encouraged." He has also expressed his belief that suicide rates among LGBT youth were a reason to discourage homosexuality, arguing that "Homosexual activity is a much greater health hazard than smoking." In 1998, Pell refused communion to members of the Rainbow Sash Movement who had attended Mass at the cathedral in Melbourne. He publicly rebuked their actions to the applause of other parishioners. Pell opposed Australian legislation in 2006 that would have permitted LGBT couples to adopt children. In 2007, he said that discrimination against LGBT people was not comparable to that against racial minorities.
See also: Religion and AIDS
In 2009, Pell supported the comments made by Pope Benedict XVI in Africa in relation to controlling the spread of AIDS, in which the Pope reiterated the Catholic teaching that the solution to the AIDS epidemic lay not in the distribution of condoms, but in the practice of sexual abstinence and monogamy within marriage. The Pope said that AIDS could not be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which "can even increase the problem". In response to global coverage of these remarks, Pell said that AIDS was a "great spiritual and health crisis" and a huge challenge, but that "Condoms are encouraging promiscuity. They are encouraging irresponsibility."
The idea that you can solve a great spiritual and health crisis like AIDS with a few mechanical contraptions like condoms is ridiculous. If you look at the Philippines you'll see the incidence of AIDS is much lower than it is in Thailand, which is awash with condoms. There are condoms everywhere and the rate of infection is enormous.
The president of the AIDS Council of New South Wales, Marc Orr, said Pell's comments were "irresponsible" and "contradicted all evidence" that condoms reduced the transmission of HIV: Mike Toole (Burnet Institute) and Rob Moodie (Nossal Institute for Global Health) wrote in The Age that Pell had said a health worker from an African country told him that "people in remote areas are too poor to afford condoms and the ones that are available are often of very poor quality and weren't used effectively". Both professors argue that "this is not an argument against promoting condoms – it is an argument that we need to ensure that good quality condoms are affordable for everyone and are widely distributed with information about how to use them effectively" and concluded "the sexual abstinence message is clearly not working."
In 2010, Benedict told an interviewer that while the church did not consider condoms as a "real or moral solution", there were times where the "intention of reducing the risk of infection" made condom use "a first step" towards a better way. Pell released a statement saying this did not signal a major new shift in Vatican thinking.
Pell supports research on the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells but opposes embryonic stem cell research on the basis that the church cannot support anything which involves "the destruction of human life at any stage after conception". Under Pell, the Sydney archdiocese has provided funding for adult stem cell research but has actively opposed moves by the Parliament of New South Wales to liberalise laws pertaining to use of embryonic stem cells.
Following a conscience vote in the Parliament of New South Wales overturning a ban on therapeutic cloning, in June 2007 Pell said that "Catholic politicians who vote for this legislation must realise that their voting has consequences for their place in the life of the church.":133 Some members of parliament, including ministers such as Kristina Keneally and Nathan Rees, condemned Pell's comments, calling them hypocritical; Rees drew comparisons with comments made earlier in the year by Sheik Hilali. Australian Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon referred Pell's remarks to the New South Wales parliamentary privileges committee for allegedly being in contempt of parliament. Pell described this move as a "clumsy attempt to curb religious freedom and freedom of speech". In September the committee tabled a report clearing him of this charge and recommending that no further action be taken.
The legal scholar and theologian Cathleen Kaveny wrote that "In every possible respect, Pell's statement backfired" as, following backlash from elected officials and the general public, the bill passed the lower house with what she describes as "an overwhelming 65–26 vote" and passed the upper house with a 27–13 vote.:133–134
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney takes the role of visitor of St John's College, a residential college within the University of Sydney. This is a largely ceremonial role but he can also be called upon to give guidance and resolve internal disputes. Under the direction of the archbishop the college associates itself with the interests of the church and its mission, particularly by the fostering of appropriate academic directions in education, charity, social justice, ethics and the environment.
Pell accepted the invitation to be patron of the Oxford University Newman Society and to deliver their inaugural St Thomas More Lecture on 6 March 2009. Pell was a contributor of articles for the Australian media, including regular columns for Sydney's The Sunday Telegraph newspaper. He is a former Fellow of the Australian College of Educators.
Pell's tenure as Archbishop of Melbourne began when the issue of handling of child sex abuse allegations by institutions was coming to the fore in public debate. Launching the "Melbourne Response" protocol in 1996, Pell said: "It's a matter of regret that the Catholic Church has taken some time to come to grips with the sex abuse issue adequately." In his final sermon as Archbishop of Sydney in 2014 before departing Australia for Rome, Pell told the congregation: "I apologise once again to the victims and their families for the terrible suffering that has been brought to bear by these crimes". He said procedural improvements could still be made to the church's efforts against child sexual abuse, and then he added that he "looked forward" to the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which he said was providing a "public service" in allowing victims to air their experiences. His choice of words drew wide criticism as they were perceived as being inappropriately blithe and unempathetic to the victims of abuse.
Shortly after becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in August 1996, Pell discussed the issue of child abuse with the Victorian premier, governor and retired judge Richard McGarvie, who all recommended swift action. He engaged the law firm Corrs to draft a scheme which would be funded by but operate independently of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.:29–30 A public forum was held on 19 October and the resulting "Melbourne Response" was announced on 30 October 1996.:30–31:29, 31 Victims were publicly encouraged to come forward. Pell's Melbourne-specific policy preceded the national church response, known as "Towards Healing", which the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference approved in November and took effect in March 1997. When Pell was appointed a cardinal in 2003, the ABC said that he had established Australia's first independent commissioner to handle child sexual abuse complaints against clergy.
The Melbourne Response was the subject of Case Study 16 in the 2013–2017 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and was also examined in the 2013 Victorian government Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Pell was called to testify at both inquiries. In 2017, the royal commission reported that the Melbourne Response was "widely criticised as being legalistic and offering inadequate support to victims". According to the royal commission, the Melbourne Response set its goals as "truth, humility, healing for the victims, assistance to other persons affected, an adequate response to those accused and to offenders and the prevention of any such offences in the future".:32 Its key features were the appointment of independent commissioners to inquire into allegations and make recommendations; a counselling and support service (Carelink); and the establishment of a compensation panel to advise on making "ex-gratia" payments to victims of child sexual abuse. The ex gratia payments are made without the church recognising any liability to victims and were initially capped at $50,000. It was increased to $55,000 in 2000 and to $75,000 in 2008. Peter O'Callaghan was appointed the first independent commissioner. He went on to investigate 351 complaints of child sexual abuse, and upheld 97% of those.:6
On 27 May 2013, Pell gave evidence before Victoria's Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. Pell told the inquiry that he was "fully apologetic and absolutely sorry". The parliamentarians questioned Pell over allegations from the parents of a victim that he had not shown them empathy. Pell said he had in fact fully understood the suffering. He agreed with the inquiry that his predecessor had "covered up" matters for fear of scandal. Pell was heckled from the gallery. Pell critic David Marr wrote that "He [Pell] admitted his church had covered up child sexual abuse for fear of scandal; that his predecessor Archbishop Little had destroyed records, moved paedophile priests from parish to parish and facilitated appalling crimes." During the course of the inquiry, a victim of a paedophile Christian Brother at St Alipius Primary School said that in 1969 Pell heard him pleading for help a few weeks after he had been raped. Pell denied the statement, which was later discredited when Pell produced his passport to confirm that he was not living in Australia that year.
During Pell's time as Archbishop of Sydney, allegations of child sexual abuse were made against around 55 priests in the archdiocese. These were largely related to incidents that occurred prior to his arrival as archbishop. The allegations resulted in just under $8 million in reparation payments.
In late 2012, the Australian federal government established a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Pell welcomed the inquiry and said "We think this is an opportunity to help the victims, it's an opportunity to clear the air and separate fact from fiction." He said there had been a persistent "press campaign against the Catholic Church". The commission conducted hearings between 2013 and 2017. Pell gave evidence on three occasions to the royal commission, beginning in March 2014 in Sydney and via video link from the Vatican in August 2014 and in February/March 2016.
In his 2012 Christmas address Pell said he felt "shock and shame" at revelations of crime and wrongdoing that were completely contrary to Christ's teaching. Pell called the crimes and wrongdoings "disasters". He said he was "deeply sorry this has happened" and told his listeners to "help those who have been hurt".
The announcement of the royal commission was accompanied by calls from some quarters for relaxing the requirement of confidentiality in confessions, which has been upheld by the Catholic Church since the fifth century. It is protected under Australian law in such statutes as the Evidence Act 1995 (which also provides protections for lawyers, journalists and spouses). When Pell was asked whether he thought that a priest who hears the confession of someone who has committed child sex abuse must remain bound by the Seal of Confession, he replied:
If that is done outside the confessional (it can be reported to the police) ... (But) the Seal of Confession is inviolable. If the priest knows beforehand about such a situation, the priest should refuse to hear the confession... That would be my advice, and I would never hear the confession of a priest who is suspected of such a thing.
A number of criticisms of Pell's conduct and manner towards victims and perpetrators have been aired in the Australian media and considered at the royal commission. His appearances before the royal commission were met with intense public interest in Australia. He was heckled from the public galleries. Pell has complained of unfair treatment from the media and "relentless character assassination".
An SBS article by Debi Marshall included suggestions Pell had ignored accounts of physical and child sexual abuse and covered up such abuse. Marshall raised the allegation that Pell had attempted to "bribe" a victim. However, Pell was cross-examined by Counsel Assisting Gail Furness over the widely publicised statement that in 1993, he attempted to bribe David Ridsdale into silence, when David Ridsdale called him about the historical misconduct of his paedophile-priest uncle Gerald Ridsdale. In her final submission, Furness conceded that the allegation was unlikely to be an accurate interpretation of Pell's intent, as it was already known that Gerald Ridsdale was under investigation by police, and David Ridsdale was requesting a private process and not suggesting he wanted to go to police.
The royal commission also considered evidence of Pell's "knowledge of rumours, allegations or complaints of Dowlan's sexual abuse of children in Ballarat", also raised in Marshall's article. One witness said he had gone to "Pell's presbytery" in Ballarat to warn him about Dowlan. Pell submitted evidence that he did not live in Ballarat or in that presbytery at the time, and the counsel-assisting said in her final submission that "Cardinal Pell's evidence about his living arrangements and duties in 1973 and 1974 make it less likely that he was at St Patrick's presbytery late in the afternoon on a week day."
In 2014, the royal commission was told how lawyers representing Pell and the Archdiocese of Sydney incurred costs of A$1.5 million against a victim of child sexual abuse. The lawyers, acting on the church's instructions, "vigorously" fought John Ellis through the courts despite warnings of his "fragile psychological state". The resulting New South Wales Court of Appeal ruling established the controversial "Ellis Defence", which confirmed that the church could not be sued as a legal entity and held liable for child sexual abuse committed by a priest in such matters. Eventually, Ellis received $568,000 from the church. In a statement to the royal commission in March 2014, Pell reversed his earlier stance in support of the defence, saying: "My own view is that the Church in Australia should be able to be sued in cases of this kind."
In his 2014 appearance, Pell used an analogy of a trucking company: "If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don't think it's appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible." He was widely criticised for this remark. The president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse, Cathy Kezelman, called his comments "outrageous", saying that they denied the experience of victims. Nicky Davis, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that Pell had made a "highly offensive" comparison. Michael Bradley, writing in his weekly column for ABC News, said "Yes, it was mind-blowingly insensitive to draw that analogy and to so blithely refer to 'some lady'. But there was a much bigger hole. In the world according to Pell, if the Catholic Church has a policy that tells its priests not to rape children then, if they still do so, the Church cannot be held accountable."
Pell appeared before the royal commission in February and March 2016 by video link from a hotel in Rome because his heart condition made travel to Australia inadvisable. After the announcement that Pell would testify from Rome in 2016, a GoFundMe campaign was launched to fund a trip to Rome by 15 victims of child sexual abuse to see Pell give evidence in person. It reached its target of A$55,000 in one day, doubled that the following day and trebled the day after. The musician Tim Minchin released the song "Come Home (Cardinal Pell)", with all proceeds to go to the GoFundMe campaign. The song described Pell as "scum" and a "coward". Within 24 hours it had over 400,000 views on YouTube and became the number one position on the iTunes song chart in Australia. In the event, Pell's testimony was witnessed by 15 victims of child sexual abuse and their supporters.
Having sworn on the Bible, Pell stated that he did not think the problems with child sexual abuse were with the institutional structure of the Catholic Church. "The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those", he said. "The Church in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has let people down. I'm not here to defend the indefensible." Counsel assisting the royal commission alleged that there were also wider problems with the church's hierarchy in Australia and Rome and beyond, which they thought he understated or sidestepped. Regarding the allegations of children, he said that "the predisposition was not to believe" and that the instinct was to protect the church. He said: "Too many of them certainly were dismissed and sometimes they were dismissed in absolutely scandalous circumstances ... They were very, very, very plausible allegations made by responsible people that were not followed up sufficiently." Pell also stated that the way Gerald Ridsdale was dealt with was "a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the church". Referring to rumours of child sexual abuse he added: "in those days", he said, "if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial".
In June 2016 the Holy See Press Office director Federico Lombardi announced that Pell would continue in his role as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, despite being obliged to submit his resignation on turning 75. Lombardi reminded reporters that Pope Francis had previously expressed his full confidence in Pell, and that Francis wished him to continue as prefect.
Pell served as an assistant priest at St Alipius' Church in Ballarat East and, in 1973, shared a house with Gerald Ridsdale, a priest who was later laicised and jailed for child sex crimes. Ridsdale was convicted between 1993 and 2017 of a very large number of child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against children aged as young as four years during the 1970s and 1980s, the total number of known victims standing at 79, but that is thought to be a small proportion of his victims. Pell was part of a leadership group of priests in the Diocese of Ballarat who met during 1982 and discussed moving Ridsdale from the parish at Mortlake and sending him to Sydney. Pell denied knowing about any of Ridsdale's actions. Journalist and former priest Paul Bongiorno, who also lived in a presbytery with Ridsdale, told ABC radio that Ridsdale concealed his activities: "They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me. And when it came out, after I'd left the priesthood, I was shocked and I was ashamed."
In March 2016, when asked by the royal commission why he had agreed to walk Ridsdale into the courthouse in Melbourne during his 1993 criminal trial, Pell responded, "I had some status as an auxiliary bishop and I was asked to appear with the ambition that this would lessen the term of punishment, lessen his time in jail." Peter Saunders, the victims' advocate and a former Catholic priest, said that this Pell response "demonstrates once again the callousness, the coldheartedness and the contempt that George Pell appears to display for this whole issue and particularly for the victims of these dreadful crimes."
In 2002 on 60 Minutes, Pell was accused by David Ridsdale, a victim of child sex abuse in Ballarat and the nephew of Gerald Ridsdale, of attempting to bribe him in 1993 in order to prevent child sexual abuse being made public. The allegation was examined at the royal commission and received further wide publicity. However, Counsel-Assisting Gail Furness conceded in her final submission to the royal commission that, given it was already known to Pell that Gerald Ridsdale was subject to police investigation and that David Ridsdale had requested a "private" rather than police process, "it is not likely that Bishop Pell would then have thought it necessary to offer Mr Ridsdale an inducement to prevent him from going to the police or public with his allegations", and Ridsdale could have "misinterpreted Bishop Pell's offer of assistance".
On 7 May 2020, the royal commission revealed its findings regarding Pell, which had been made by 2017 but were withheld while Pell's own sexual abuse case was ongoing. concluding that Pell knew of child sexual abuse by clergy by the 1970s, but did not take adequate action to address it. Pell responded that the commission's views "are not supported by evidence".
For the case of Gerald Ridsdale, while Pell was a priest in Ballarat, the commission concluded that "in 1973 Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps", with child sexual abuse "on his radar, in relation to" Ridsdale. The commission concluded that "by 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy, but he also considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it".
For the case of Father Peter Searson, while Pell was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, the commission concluded that given the information Pell had in 1989, he "should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so". Pell had told the commission that, in 1989, he received a list of grievances about Searson. The list included statements that Searson had harassed children, parents and school staff, used children's toilets without cause, shown children a dead body and practised animal cruelty. The commission concluded that it "ought to have been obvious" to Pell that he needed to have Season removed, while rejecting Pell's statement that he had been "deceived" regarding Searson's case by education officials. Pell removed Searson in 1997 when he had become the archbishop.
For the case of Father Wilfred James Baker, while Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne, the commission concluded that Pell had the power to remove Baker in August 1996 when he learned that Baker was about to be charged. Pell did not remove Baker then, resulting in Baker continuing as a priest in a parish with a primary school until May 1997. Baker was jailed in 1999 for child sexual abuse.
In June 2002, a Melbourne man accused Pell of sexually abusing him at a Catholic youth camp in 1961, when the accuser was 12 years old and Pell was a young seminarian. Pell denied the accusations and stood aside while the inquiry continued. The complainant agreed to pursue his allegations through the church's own process for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, the National Committee for Professional Standards. Retired Victorian Supreme Court Justice Alec Southwell, appointed commissioner by the church to investigate the matter, found that the complainant, despite his long criminal record, had mostly given the impression of "speaking honestly from actual recollection" but concluded as follows: "bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant's credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not 'satisfied that the complaint has been established'". Pell said he had been exonerated, while the complainant's solicitor said his client had been vindicated.
In March 2013, Victoria Police launched "Operation Tethering" to investigate whether Pell had committed unreported crimes. On 20 February 2016, the Herald Sun newspaper reported that Pell had been under investigation for the past year by detectives from the Victoria Police SANO Taskforce over sexual abuse allegations involving between five and ten boys that occurred between 1978 and 2001 when he was a priest in Ballarat and when he was archbishop of Melbourne. His office issued a public statement denying the allegations calling them "utterly false" and asked for an inquiry into the leaking of information by Victoria Police officers to the media. Victoria Police remained silent on whether Pell was being investigated. The SANO Taskforce was established in 2012 to investigate allegations arising from the Victorian Government Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations and the subsequent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
On 28 July 2016, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton, confirmed that there was an investigation into alleged child sexual abuse by Pell following a report by the ABC's 7.30 program the previous day and stated that he was awaiting advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). On 17 August 2016, Victoria Police confirmed a response had been received from the DPP, but would not disclose the DPP's recommendations.
In October 2016, three Victoria Police officers from the SANO Task Force flew to Rome to interview Pell, who voluntarily participated, regarding allegations of sexual assault. In February 2017, Victoria Police advised that the brief of evidence against Pell for sexual assault allegations had been returned to the Office of Public Prosecutions for review with advice subsequently provided to Victoria Police in May 2017.
On 29 June 2017, Victoria Police announced they were charging Pell with a series of sexual assault offences with several counts and several victims. At a press conference in Rome, Pell stated that he would return to Australia and was "looking forward, finally, to having my day in court" and said "I'm innocent of those charges. They are false". On 10 July 2017, Pell left the Vatican and returned to Australia to face trial. Details of the charges were not made public, however a series of hearings and two trials later dismissed all but one of the cases brought against Pell.
On 26 July 2017, whilst not required to attend in person, Pell appeared at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court for a filing hearing represented by barrister Robert Richter; and, although not required at this stage of the court committal process, he entered a plea of not guilty. An application by the media seeking the public disclosure of the details of the charges was refused by the magistrate. At a procedural hearing on 22 November 2017, his lawyers requested documents from ABC News journalist Louise Milligan and Melbourne University Press relating to Milligan's book Cardinal: the Rise and Fall of George Pell which was published in early 2017.
In January 2018, accuser Damian Dignan died after a long illness. Former chief Victorian magistrate Nicholas Papas said that Dignan's death would affect the structure of Pell's court case (the "swimmers trial"), and stated that in a case of historical child sexual abuse it can "seriously affect the case" due to a lack of witnesses. That charge was withdrawn on the Friday before the committal hearing was due to begin. Pell's lawyers requested and were denied the personal medical information of the complainants. Pell's defence was reported to be based on questioning the timing of allegations. Some other charges were dropped after a complainant was ruled medically unfit to give evidence.
The committal hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to commit Pell to stand trial commenced on 5 March 2018. The hearing allowed for approximately fifty witnesses to give evidence, including former choirboys. The magistrate allowed Pell's barrister to cross-examine all but five witnesses. As a result, the hearing was scheduled to allow for four weeks of testimony and cross-examination. Pell's barrister said the matter would go to trial and that some of the allegations, those involving St Patrick's Cathedral, were impossible.
On 1 May 2018, Pell was committed to stand trial on several historical sexual offence charges. Magistrate Belinda Wallington concluded that there was enough evidence for the case to proceed on about half of the charges. Allegations that Pell committed sexual assault in the 1970s in a Ballarat cinema and chapel were among the charges dismissed. She permitted remaining unrelated allegations to proceed to trial: the "swimmers trial" and the "cathedral trial". Pell entered pleas of not guilty. As a bail condition, Pell surrendered his Vatican passport and was not permitted to leave Australia.
On 2 May 2018, Pell appeared in the County Court of Victoria for a directions hearing before Judge Sue Pullen, and it was agreed that he would undergo two separate trials with two separate juries and that the charges would be heard separately for each trial. He was to be tried in relation to allegations of sexual offences taking place at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1990 in the first case (the "cathedral trial"), and in relation to further allegations taking place at a Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s in the second case (the "swimmers trial"). The Catholic Weekly, a publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, advertised seeking donations for Pell's legal fund and wrote an article promoting the appeal for funding. It is unknown who was responsible for the advertising or the donation drive. Prosecutors sought a media ban on reporting on the trials until the verdict in the second trial. A suppression order was subsequently issued by Chief Judge Peter Kidd on 25 June 2018. The purpose of the order was to prevent the risk of prejudice to Pell by jurors in the "swimmers trial" knowing the details or the outcome of the "cathedral trial" so that he received a fair trial.
Pell's first trial for the allegations of misconduct in St Patrick's Cathedral began in August 2018 under Chief Judge Kidd. However, it ended with the jury unable to reach a unanimous verdict. This necessitated a retrial, with another jury. A retrial was conducted, again under Chief Judge Kidd. On 11 December 2018, Pell was convicted on five counts of child sexual abuse of two boys in the 1990s.
Australian media outlets generally respected the suppression order preventing publication of details on the "cathedral trial" until the verdict in the "swimmers trial" whereas international news sources decided to report the conviction. The Melbourne-based Herald Sun posted on its front page "CENSORED" in large print in protest of the ban, noting that international sources were reporting on a "very important story that is relevant to Victorians". In a statement made to The Washington Post, Noah Shachtman, editor-in-chief of the online news magazine The Daily Beast, consulted with American and Australian lawyers, but ultimately considered it an "easy call" to report on the conviction, though he did place geo-blocking restrictions to prevent online access to the story from Australia. More than 140 international news reports were published within 24 hours with Pell's barrister informing Chief Judge Judd it was on Wikipedia.
At the time of Pell's conviction in the "cathedral trial", a second trial was pending regarding unrelated allegations that he sexually assaulted two boys while throwing them in the air in a Ballarat swimming pool in the late 1970s. These allegations had been raised by the ABC, leading to a Victoria Police investigation; however, Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the charges after Chief Judge Kidd on 22 February 2019 disallowed the prosecution's submission of evidence from complainants on the grounds that each piece of evidence was not sufficient. News of Pell's conviction was published in Australia on 26 February 2019 when the suppression order was lifted following the withdrawal. An alleged victim intends to launch a claim for damages against Pell and other parties.
At a pre-sentencing hearing on 27 February 2019, Pell's bail was revoked and he was taken into custody at the Melbourne Assessment Prison. Pell's lawyers advised that an appeal had been filed against his conviction on three grounds. His lawyers released a statement that he "has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so".
The sentencing hearing on 13 March 2019 was broadcast live to the public, with Chief Judge Kidd sentencing Pell to serve six years in jail with a non-parole period of three years and eight months. Pell was also registered as a sex offender.
In his preliminary remarks during sentencing, Kidd mentioned examples of a "witch-hunt" or "lynch mob" mentality in relation to Pell during the lead-up to his conviction. Describing the nature of the conviction, Kidd said "the offending which the jury has found you have engaged in, was on any view, breathtakingly arrogant. These are all reasonable inferences available once it is assumed, as I must, that this offending actually occurred." After an assessment of the impact on victims, including the gravity of the offences, the age of the defendant (including his health) and Pell's "otherwise good character" and "blameless life", Kidd sentenced him to a total effective sentence of six years' imprisonment.
Pell's trial and conviction divided public opinion in Australia. The Jesuit human rights lawyer Father Frank Brennan, a long-time theological critic of Pell, wrote following his conviction: "I was very surprised by the verdict. In fact, I was devastated ... The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible." The Catholic high school Pell attended in Ballarat removed his name from one of its buildings.
Following Pell's conviction, The Australian's Paul Kelly wrote that "calculated media assaults on Pell" had been "spearheaded by the ABC", contributing to an intense and unjustified public hatred of him and prejudicial environment in which to conduct a trial. The Age's crime reporter John Silvester outlined his concerns at the conviction: "George Pell is a polarising figure, which is perhaps why there are now two warring camps – those who want him to be guilty of historical sex offences against two choirboys and those who don't ... [He] was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness, without forensic evidence, a pattern of behaviour or a confession ... If Pell did molest those two teenagers in the busy cathedral, it certainly does not fit the usual pattern of priests ... although he had access to hundreds of boys over his career he did not groom the vulnerable. Instead he attacked two he did not know in broad daylight in a near public area."
On 26 March 2019, Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions named 36 media outlets, journalists and broadcasters in the Supreme Court and applied that they be found guilty, convicted and either imprisoned or fined for breaching the suppression order. International media did not face charges.
The Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria heard pleadings for Pell being granted leave to appeal simultaneously with the appeal itself on 5–6 June 2019. Pell was represented by Bret Walker SC. Three grounds of appeal were lodged: that the verdict was unreasonable, that permission to use in their closing address a visual aid prepared by the defence that illustrated the locations of people within the cathedral around the time of the first assault had been refused, and that Pell had not been arraigned in the presence of the jury as is required under standard criminal procedures in Victoria. Judgment was reserved, without setting a date to deliver the decision. Pell remained in prison until then. On 10 August 2019, a Victorian Department of Justice spokeswoman said that Pell could face disciplinary action after a letter he apparently wrote from prison was posted on a Twitter account called "Cardinal George Pell Supporters"; the Victorian government bans prisoners from using social media or asking others to post on their behalf.
On 21 August 2019, the Court of Appeal issued its ruling, which upheld the conviction. The three-judge panel comprised Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Chris Maxwell and Justice Mark Weinberg. On the first ground of appeal, that the verdict was unreasonable, the court granted leave to appeal but dismissed the appeal by a majority (2–1) decision. Chief Justice Ferguson and President Maxwell dismissed the appeal. Ferguson stated that, for the appeal to succeed, the court needed to find that the jury must have had doubt as to the defendant's guilt, not merely that they could have had doubt. Justice Weinberg issued a dissenting judgment and would have allowed the appeal on the first ground.
Whilst Chief Justice Ferguson and President Maxwell stated that they "did not experience a doubt" in the case, the dissenting Judge Weinberg likened the case to that of Lindy Chamberlain, which had seen wrongful conviction by a jury and appeal court based on faulty evidence: Weinberg wrote that "there is, to my mind, a 'significant possibility' that the applicant in this case may not have committed these offences. That means that, in my respectful opinion, these convictions cannot be permitted to stand. The only order that can properly be made is that the applicant be acquitted on each charge."
The court unanimously refused leave to appeal on the second and third grounds. In relation to the second ground, Chief Justice Ferguson described the visual aid that Pell's lawyer sought to present in his closing address as tendentious, as potentially misleading or confusing and as including material that was unsupported by evidence in the trial record. The court ruled that the trial judge had been correct to exclude it. In relation to the third ground, the court ruled that the requirement for the jury to be present during arraignment did not require physical presence and that presence via video link (as was the case here) was adequate to satisfy this requirement.
SBS reported that people outside of Victoria's Supreme Court cheered and "abuse survivors and victims' advocates say justice has been done" while "one supporter of Pell was shouted down". The ABC's Louise Milligan congratulated the majority judges, and wrote for the ABC "As the only journalist who has met J [Pell's accuser] and other complainants against George Pell, and who wrote about these allegations in my book, Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of George Pell... I have never had any reason to believe that J is not telling the truth ... It's the ultimate David and Goliath tale of a young man who never sought fame, just wanted justice, against a well-resourced defendant who has for years cultivated and been supported by the powerful." Former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane dismissed concerns at Pell's conviction as an affront to the "rule of law" and a case of "conservatives" creating a "twisted inversion of victimhood".
On 17 September 2019, Pell sought special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia, the final court of appeal in Australia. On 13 November, two justices of the High Court referred the decision on leave to appeal to a full court "for argument as on an appeal". On 19 November 2019, most of the High Court appeal timeline was set. Pell's lawyers submitted in January 2020 that Pell's conviction should be overturned, on the basis that, in the face of exculpatory evidence, the Court of Appeal had relied on their "belief" in the complainant to eliminate doubt and uphold the conviction. The prosecution submission filed on 1 February asserted that the appeal judgement had glossed over evidence that supported his conviction. The application for leave to appeal was heard on 11 and 12 March 2020 by a full bench of seven justices.
On 7 April 2020, the High Court unanimously granted leave to appeal, treated the arguments about leave as arguments on an appeal, and allowed the appeal, quashing Pell's convictions and determining that judgments of acquittal be entered in their place. The court found (as stated in its summary[c]) 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". The court agreed with the minority judgment in the Court of Appeal, finding that the majority might have effectively reversed the burden of proof; the majority had been so impressed with the accuser's evidence that it had gone on to ask only whether, despite the testimonies of the "opportunity witnesses", there was a "possibility" that the alleged assaults had taken place and not, as was required by the test of reasonable doubt, whether there was a reasonable "possibility" that they had not. In their judgment, the judges said with respect to all five charges that, “Making full allowance for the advantages enjoyed by the jury, there is a significant possibility ... that an innocent person has been convicted.”
The Vatican welcomed the acquittal. The accuser, still anonymised as "Witness J", issued a statement that he respected the decision and hoped that it would not discourage other victims of sexual abuse from lodging complaints, adding "This case does not define me. I am a man who came forward for my friend who, sadly, is no longer with us." Pell wrote in The Australian: "I knew God was with me, but I didn’t know what He was up to, although I realised He has left all of us free", adding "But with every blow it was a consolation to know I could offer it to God for some good purpose like turning the mass of suffering into spiritual energy."
Following Pell's acquittal, prior media coverage of his case came under intense scrutiny. Australia's national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was accused of sustained bias against Pell both before and during the trial and appeals. Journalist Paul Kelly wrote that "many opinion-makers made grievous mistakes. But none remotely has the culpability of the ABC in its relentless, biased and prejudiced campaign against Pell lasting for many years." In a review of the conduct of the ABC and Victorian authorities, Kelly concluded "Some media outlets ... fuelled the mob mentality. The job of the ABC was to inform and educate on one of the most contentious trials in the past half-century. Instead, it campaigned against Pell, essentially offering a one-sided condemnatory view in a coverage that was extensive, powerful and influential with the public. The High Court’s decision reveals that, from the start, there were two sides to this story — a flawed church that Pell represented and a flawed Victorian legal system prejudiced against him. The ABC saw only one side. Its campaigning mentality meant it failed to inform the public about the real nature of this contest and the issues involved."
The ABC dismissed criticisms of its coverage and defended its pursuit of Pell as having been "without fear or favour". After criticism that its documentary series Revelation (which presented Pell as guilty) had been timed to coincide with the High Court decision, the ABC denied "rushing forward" the program, but removed it from its digital platform for "re-editing". In the aftermath of the acquittal, ABC presenters and reporters including Louise Milligan expressed disappointment on social media. Jon Faine expressed dismay at the High Court decision in a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, writing: "Bizarre. One witness swears on oath: this is what happened to me at this place on this day. Other witnesses say: I do not know what happened on that day but that is not what usually happens – and that creates a doubt and voids the conviction. Compounding improbabilities become 'reasonable doubt'."
Criticism of the conduct of Victoria Police, the DPP and the Court of Appeal judges resulted from the High Court verdict. Human rights lawyer and Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan said: "I was a law and politics student in Queensland in the 1970s when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier. This Pell saga has all the marks of the same broken-down criminal justice system. The difference is that it was right-of-centre in the Sunshine State and it is left-of-centre here in Victoria. ... I don't think Aborigines were treated as prejudicially by even the worst of 19th-century judges."
Victoria Police have been criticised for failing to properly test the accusations against Pell by interviewing relevant witnesses prior to laying charges. They did not interview the men who ordinarily accompanied Pell around the cathedral on the day of the first alleged offence in the open sacristy, and they did not interview any of the 50 witnesses present for the alleged second assault in a public corridor. Paul Kelly wrote for The Australian that "The Ferguson-Maxwell majority said they found 'improbable' the idea that the complainant 'would have thought to invent a second incident if his true purpose was to advance false allegations' against Pell because this second allegation only risked the likelihood his entire position 'would unravel' when tested. In short, the sheer dubious nature of A’s second complaint must be a sign of his credibility! What hope did Pell have against this logic? ... [The dissenting Judge Weinberg] said: 'I would have thought any prosecutor would be wary of bringing a charge of this gravity against anyone, based upon the implausible notion that a sexual assault of this kind would take place in public and in the presence of numerous potential witnesses.' In short, the Victorian DPP should never have brought Pell to trial on this incident."
On 14 April 2020 it was reported that Pell was under a secret investigation by Victorian police regarding a separate allegation of child sexual abuse committed in Ballarat in the 1970s. The police had neither attempted to interview Pell nor confirmed that an investigation was under way.
Pell has written widely in religious and secular magazines, including learned journals and newspapers in Australia and overseas. He regularly spoke on television and radio. His other publications include The Sisters of St Joseph in Swan Hill 1922–72 (1972), Catholicism in Australia (1988), Rerum Novarum – One Hundred Years Later (1992), Catholicism and the Architecture of Freedom.
Victoria Police has been conducting a secret probe into Cardinal Pell while he appealed against his convictions to the High Court of Australia. ...Police have not yet approached him or his lawyers.