Prosecutors: Australian cardinal's convictions should stand

Protester Joe Mitchell, 83, holds banners against the church as he drove more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from his home in Newcastle, New South Wales state, to the Victoria state Court of Appeal in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. Australian Cardinal George Pell, 77, appeared in the Victoria state Court of Appeal wearing a cleric's collar for the hearing that is set to be heard by three judges on Wednesday and Thursday.(AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
Cardinal George Pell, center rear, arrives at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. The most senior Catholic found guilty of child sex abuse has begun his appeal in an Australian court against his convictions of molesting two choirboys in a cathedral more than 20 years ago. Cardinal George Pell appeared in court wearing a cleric's collar for the hearing being heard by three judges. Formerly the pope's finance minister, Pell had been sentenced in March to six years in prison. (Julian Smith/AAP Image via AP)
FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2019, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia. Pell, the most senior Catholic convicted of child sex abuse will soon ask an Australian appeals court to reverse convictions on charges of molesting two choirboys in a cathedral more than 20 years ago. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill, File)

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian prosecutors argued in court Thursday that child sex convictions against a Roman Catholic cardinal should not be overturned and said his accuser had been a compelling witness.

Cardinal George Pell, 77, is the most senior Catholic to be convicted of child sex abuse and is appealing those guilty verdicts in the Victoria state Court of Appeal. He attended both days of the hearing, wearing a cleric's collar and occasionally taking notes.

The three judges reserved their decision to a date to be set.

Prosecutor Chris Boyce told the judges that the convictions, largely based on the testimony of a single accuser, should stand.

"The complainant was a very compelling witness," Boyce said. "He was clearly not a liar. He was not a fantasist. He was a witness of truth."

A jury unanimously convicted Pope Francis' former finance minister in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy's 13-year-old friend in Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in December 1996. Pell had become archbishop of Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, only months before.

One of the boys, now aged in his 30s, was the key prosecution witness. The other died or a heroin overdose in 2014, apparently without ever alleging he had been abused. State law prohibits identifying either victim.

Pell was sentenced in March to six years in prison and is being held in special protective custody because pedophiles are regarded as being at higher risk of harm from other prisoners. While he remains Australia's highest-ranking Catholic, the Vatican is conducting its own investigation into his convictions.

Francis' papacy has been thrown into turmoil by clerical sexual abuse and the church's handling of such cases worldwide. In a little more than a year, the pope has acknowledged he made "grave errors" in Chile's worst case of cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile, and a third cardinal, former U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.

In addition to the rape and three indecency convictions from the sacristy crimes, Pell was also convicted of an act of indecency against the complainant by squeezing his genitals as they passed in a cathedral corridor immediately after a Mass in early 1997.

Appeal Court Justice Chris Maxwell described that allegation as "wildly improbable."

Boyce said "perhaps it is" unlikely or improbable.

Boyce said the complainant spent more than eight hours in the witness box and underwent "searing" cross examination during Pell's original trial in the Victoria County Court, which ended with a deadlocked jury in September last year.

A second jury convicted Pell after watching a video of the complainant's testimony. The appeal judges will also watch the same testimony.

Boyce told the judges they had to watch the complainant's evidence from start to finish.

After hearing the man's responses, "one puts down one's pen and stares blankly at the screen and is moved," Boyce said, adding that at that point any doubts are removed.

Boyce told the judges they need not consider why at least two jurors in Pell's original trial were not convinced beyond reasonable doubt of his guilt.

Pell's lawyer Bret Walker had told the court on Wednesday that Pell could not have molested the two boys and argued the five verdicts against Pell were "unsafe and unsatisfactory" and should be overturned.

During the jury's deliberations, they asked to watch for a second time the video evidence of the complainant and of the defense's most important witness, Monsignor Charles Portelli. Portelli had testified that he had always been with Pell during the Masses in December 1996, helping the then-archbishop robe and disrobe.

Maxwell said Portelli's evidence was part of an "aggregate of hurdles" that the jury had to overcome to reach their guilty verdicts.

The judges say they have to go through more evidence from the trial before deciding on Pell's appeal. Whichever way the court rules, the case could reach the High Court, Australia's ultimate arbiter.

If the judges rule that the verdict is unsafe on the evidence, Pell would be acquitted. If they rule there was an irregularity in his arraignment, another of the grounds cited in his appeal, he could be retried. If that happens, he would likely be freed on bail until his third trial.

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