The lawyers representing Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse, and those prosecuting the case painted very different pictures of the events that led to his conviction.
Pell was found guilty in December of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the sacristy of a cathedral and weeks later of indecently assaulting one of the choirboys in a cathedral corridor. Reporting on the case in Melbourne, Australia on had been forbidden by the Victoria state County Court until Tuesday.
The prosecution said Pell had opportunity to commit the crimes. The defense said it was impossible for the crimes to have gone unnoticed in the busy cathedral moments after masses.
The following are key points of difference between the prosecution and defense cases:
— SACRISTY EPISODE
The defense said the allegation in which Pell caught two choirboys in a change room known as a priests’ sacristy at the rear of the cathedral and sexually abused them would have taken at least six minutes and could not have happened undetected.
The defense said that the sacristy was a “hive of activity” after mass, where an altar server testified that 30 seconds did not pass without a priest, altar server or church official being inside the room returning chalices and the missal from the altar and helping the archbishop disrobe or disrobing themselves.
The defense also said Pell would have been standing on the front steps of the cathedral chatting to worshippers during the first two Sunday Solemn Masses he said as archbishop at the cathedral in the moments after services when the complainant testified he was molested. Records show that the sacristy episode could only have happened on Dec. 15 or 22, 1996.
The defense said church protocols dating back to the 15th century require that a bishop is never unattended while robed and Pell had been dressed in full archbishop’s regalia except for the crosier (shepherd’s crook) and the miter (pointed hat) when the offending occurred.
Cathedral Master of Ceremonies Monsignor Charles Portelli testified that he recalled accompanying Pell and helping the archbishop robe and disrobe during Pell’s first two Sunday masses at the cathedral.
The prosecution said Portelli smoked 20 cigarettes a day at the time and suggested he might have left Pell at the sacristy door while going outside to smoke. But Portelli denied leaving Pell for a cigarette and the prosecution told the jury they should disregard the smoking-break theory as speculation.
The prosecution argued that there was an opportunity for the offending to take place, with altar servers allowing worshippers a few minutes of “the privacy of prayer” after mass before moving in to clear the altar space of sacred items and returning them to the sacristy.
The prosecution also said Pell did not always spend time conversing with parishioners on the cathedral steps after mass.
— ARCHBISHOP’S GARMENTS
The defense argued that Pell could not have parted his garments to expose his penis as the complainant had alleged to police, with defense lawyer Robert Richter calling such a scenario “nonsense” and “laughable.” The defense accused the complainant of altering his evidence in later testimony after discovering that the garments did not open along the middle.
The jury was given the cumbersome garments to examine in the jury room during their deliberations.
The prosecution argued that the full length robe known as an alb was “not like a straight jacket,” and there was “little difference” between the complainant’s police statements and his court testimony.
The defense said Pell could not have shoved a choirboy against a corridor wall and painfully squeezed his genitals following a mass on Feb. 23, 1997 without being noticed, even if they were partially obscured by a pillar.
“Whether or not he’s hiding behind a pillar doesn’t matter because this gentleman, George Pell, … all six foot four (193 centimeters) of him, wouldn’t be hiding behind any pillar anyway. He would be seen by whoever was in the corridor to be violently pushing someone against the wall and reaching for their nether parts. And so we say that is just nonsense,” Richter said.
The prosecution said the indecent assault was brief, Pell would have had reason to be heading to his sacristy via that corridor and might not have lingered out the front of the cathedral chatting with the congregation that day because he had to say another mass that afternoon at a church in the Melbourne suburb of Maidstone.
— THE COMPLAINANT’S CREDIBILITY
The defense said no other witness corroborated the 34-year-old complainant’s allegations and the other alleged victim had told his parents before he died of an accidental drug overdose in 2014 that he had never been molested while he was a chorister. The defense says the complainant’s evidence was full of “improbabilities and impossibilities.”
“His account is ultimately based on some kind of fantasy, or a fiction, or an invention. I would like to think that it’s not an outright altogether invention, that it was based in some way on some fantasy that has morphed over the years into him believing that he’d been assaulted,” Richter said.
The prosecution described the complainant’s testimony as “powerful and persuasive.” The evidence of other witnesses supported several aspects of his evidence, prosecutors said.
(asterisk)The choir’s procession from the cathedral.
The defense argued that none of the choristers recalled seeing two choirboys break from a procession from the cathedral front door to the choir change room after mass in December 1996 because it never happened.
The complainant testified that he and his fellow victim had peeled away from a procession and returned to the cathedral through a side door before Pell caught them in the sacristy and abused them.
The prosecution said whether the boys had been able to break away from the procession was a key issue for the jury in determining Pell’s guilt, along with whether Pell had stayed on the cathedral front steps chatting with the congregation after mass and whether he returned to the sacristy alone.
The defense said the pair, as sopranos, would have been toward the front of the procession with older boys and adult choristers behind them. The older choristers would have enforced a high degree of discipline.
The prosecution argued the procession did not operate with “military precision” and with 61 choristers in the procession plus altar servers and priests, it was probable that the pair could have slipped away without being noticed.
— ALTAR WINE
The complainant testified that the wine Pell caught him swigging was red, while there was evidence that the cathedral used white altar wine at the time.
The defense points to Sacristan Max Potter’s evidence that the wine was always locked in a sacristy safe after Sunday Solemn Mass.
The prosecution says as a 13 year-old boy, the complainant could be expected to be inexperienced in varieties of wine.