Australian court to hear ex-Vatican treasurer's final appeal on sex offences

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s highest court will hear a final bid on March 11 by former Vatican treasurer George Pell to overturn his conviction for sexually assaulting two teenaged choir boys in the 1990s when he was archbishop of Melbourne.

Pell, 78, is in jail serving a six-year sentence which began a year ago after he was convicted by a jury on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of an indecent act with a child under 16.

The highest ranked Catholic worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences is appealing to the High Court of Australia after Victoria’s Court of Appeal upheld his conviction last August by a 2-1 majority.

His conviction has been the most high profile case of sexual abuse by priests to rock the Roman Catholic Church across the globe, from Australia to Argentina, mostly stemming from alleged assaults that took place decades ago.

Pell was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to overhaul the Vatican’s finances. He lost his role last year after being jailed, however he remains a cardinal despite pressure on the church from victims of sexual abuse and their advocates to dismiss him.

To be dismissed from the priesthood, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have to find him guilty following a separate canonical trial or a shortened procedure, known as an “administrative process”.

The Pope has declined to comment on Pell’s case until he exhausts all avenues of appeal.

The High Court has set two days for a hearing, starting on March 11, before five or seven judges. Pell will not be at the court.

The judges could refuse to take on the case after initial arguments, in which case Pell would have no further avenue of appeal and would remain in jail.

Or, the court could go ahead and hear all the arguments on whether the Court of Appeal majority was right in ruling that it was not unreasonable that the trial jury found Pell guilty.

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