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Published: 07 April 2020
Author: RCT Abuse Law team

Pell conviction quashed, but civil action still an option

Today marked the final chapter in the criminal proceedings against Cardinal George Pell since he was first charged in 2017 with historical child sex offences against two choir boys from the 1990s. In December 2018, a jury of his peers unanimously found him guilty of the crimes, but Pell maintained his innocence throughout.

Today, the High Court unanimously upheld Pell’s appeal and acquitted him of the convictions.


In March 2019, Pell was sentenced to a maximum term of six years’ in prison. In September 2019, he lodged an appeal with the High Court of Australia, following his unsuccessful appeal to the Victorian Court of Appeal in August 2019 which upheld his conviction.

In their High Court submissions, Pell’s legal team argued that the prosecution had failed to eliminate reasonable doubt, on the basis that too much weight was given to the complainant’s testimony, and not to other evidence presented in the trial, including numerous church witnesses.

Recently, further allegations made against Pell have been revealed publicly for the first time, with two men coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse by Pell in the 1970s, which never proceeded to a criminal trial on the basis of insufficient evidence.

The past months have been an anxious wait for many who viewed the proceedings as a David and Goliath battle, as a timely representation of historical abuse victims being heard in the criminal justice system, whereas staunch supporters of Pell maintained that the convictions were a gross miscarriage of justice.

This morning, the High Court of Australia upheld Pell’s appealed and quashed his convictions.

In essence, they unanimously held that a rational jury ought to have held reasonable doubt as to Pell’s guilt in the circumstances of the offending, being that of a bustling church after the conclusion of Sunday solemn mass with limited realistic opportunity for the offending to have occurred.

Pell was not in court to hear the judgement, and instead is to be informed of the decision by his legal team. He is expected to be released from Barwon Prison, where he is presently being held, prior to Easter.

Burden of Proof: Beyond all reasonable doubt v on the balance of probabilities

"The burden of proof differs considerably between the criminal law and the civil law."

The decision of the High Court today will no doubt bring many traumas to the surface and for some will likely strengthen their distrust in the legal system.

It is important survivors understand that although Pell has not been convicted of criminal charges this does not mean he cannot be pursued for compensation in the civil courts.

The burden of proof differs considerably between the criminal law and the civil law.

In a criminal court a person must be proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This is a significant burden on the prosecution. However, in a civil case the relevant test is whether the abuse occurred on the balance of probabilities. There are often cases where a criminal charge cannot be substantiated but a survivor is successful in their claim for compensation.

Our Abuse Law team understand how challenging it can be to tell your story. We want you to know we hear you and believe you.

Survivors of abuse are welcome to contact our office on 1300 366 441 for a sensitive, confidential and free of charge discussion about what your legal options may be.

If this story has raised any issues for you, we recommend you contact the following services:

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Sexual Assault Crisis Line (Victoria): 1800 806 292

Lifeline: 13 11 14

1800 RESPECT (Australia): 1800 737 732

A full range of support services based on demographic area can be found at the National Redress Scheme website.

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