Pell’s appeal pitted word of former choirboy against priest

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George Pell

FILE – In this Feb. 26, 2019, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia. Pell’s appeal against his convictions for child molestation was largely a question of who should the jury have believed, his accuser or a senior priest whose church role was likened to Pell’s bodyguard. Pell’s accuser was a 13-year-old choirboy when he alleged he was abused by then Melbourne Archbishop Pell at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1996 and February 1997. The appeal court will give their verdict on Aug. 21. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill, File)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his convictions for child molestation was largely a question of who the jury should have believed, his accuser or a senior priest whose church role was likened to Pell’s bodyguard.

Pell’s accuser was a 13-year-old choirboy when he alleged that he was abused by then-Melbourne Archbishop Pell at the city’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in December 1996 and February 1997. Monsignor Charles Portelli was a master of ceremonies at the 11 a.m. Sunday Masses where the choir sang.

A chorister in the 1990s, David Dearing, told police that Portelli, Pell’s right-hand man, was always with the archbishop “like his bodyguard.”

When the jury of eight men and four women that convicted Pell began their deliberations, they asked to see again video recordings of the testimonies of both the complainant, who cannot be identified, and Portelli.

Portelli had testified that he had been with Pell chatting to churchgoers on the steps of the cathedral on the only two Sundays in December 1996 when Pell could potentially have been molesting the two choirboys. His testimony that Pell was on the steps in the moments for around 10 minutes after those Masses has been described as alibi evidence.

The Maltese-born immigrant also testified that he would have seen Pell squeeze a choirboy’s genitals as he shoved the teen against a cathedral wall if the indecent assault had happened after a Mass in February 1997 as the complainant had testified.

“To do so, he (Pell) would have had to push in front of me,” Portelli said in a television interview in April, in which he said Pell was innocent.

Portelli also revealed that Pell phoned him the day his testimony ended in November to apologize for the grilling he received from prosecutors. Portelli said prosecutor Mark Gibson tried to undermine his credibility as the prosecution had the witness before him, 85-year-old sacristan Max Potter, who was in charge of the priests’ changing room where the complainant had alleged he and another choirboy had been molested.

“They had tried to bamboozle him (Potter) with dates and secondary questions and so on and the cardinal apologized to me by saying, ‘I’m sorry they tried to do the same to you,'” Portelli told Sky television.

Prosecutor Chris Boyce told the appeals court in June that Portelli’s memory appeared to be clearer when he answered defense lawyers’ questions than when he was questioned by the prosecution.

Boyce accused Portelli of assisting the defense by purporting to not have memories that he had when questioned by Pell’s lawyers.

Pell’s lawyer Bret Walker told the appeals court that the prosecution never suggested to the jury that Portelli was lying, partisan or lacked reliability.

“Monsignor Portelli deserved better, with respect, than the way his evidence was criticized and belittled in terms of its importance for your honors’ independent assessment,” Walker told the three appeals judges, who are to issue their ruling Wednesday.

Portelli had said he was always with Pell during the Masses in question and helped the archbishop robe and disrobe.

Portelli was a heavy smoker in the 1990s. Gibson suggested to the jury that Portelli might have gone outside the cathedral to smoke a cigarette, leaving Pell to enter the sacristy alone and abuse the boys.

But the suggestion was withdrawn because Portelli was never asked if he had left Pell alone to smoke and the trial heard no evidence to suggest that he had.

Boyce said the complainant’s testimony stood up to more than eight hours of questioning. Boyce drew the judges’ attention to a video recording of a particular section of the complainant’s questioning by Pell’s lawyers.

“The responses that you see there … and the manner in which they’re delivered, at the end of those, one puts down one’s pen and stares blankly at the screen and is moved,” Boyce said.

“At that point, … any doubt that one might have about that account … is removed,” he added.

Appeals Justice Mark Weinberg told Boyce there were plenty of cases in which appeals courts had said the complainant was credible and appeared truthful, but that the verdicts were unsafe because of other evidence and improbability.

The complainant’s credibility was only “the beginning of the process,” Weinberg said.

“We have to consider the evidence as a whole, every bit of it,” the judge added.

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