An alibi and a series of explanations offered by Monsignor Charles Portelli in the explosive child sex abuse case which has seen Australian Cardinal George Pell incarcerated in protective custody and serving a minimum of three years and eight months of his six-year sentence before becoming eligible for parole, did not stand up to scrutiny and collapsed in court this week.

Monsignor Charles Portelli, a Maltese-born immigrant to Australia, not a descendant of immigrants, has been described as being like Cardinal George Pell’s ‘bodyguard’.

An Australian appeals court on Wednesday upheld convictions against Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to ever be found guilty of sexually abusing children. The decision brought cheers from scores of abuse survivors and victims’ advocates demonstrating outside court.

Pope Francis’ former finance minister, Pell was found guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral more than two decades ago.

He was sentenced to six years in prison in March and is no longer a member of Francis’ Council of Cardinals or a Vatican official. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said soon after the appeal was rejected that Pell would be stripped of his Order of Australia honour.

The Vatican is conducting its own investigation into sex abuse allegations against Pell.

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 the Maltese seniorpriest.

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 11am Sunday Masses, where the choir sang.

A chorister in the 1990s, David Dearing, had 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 molested 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 back in April, in which he insisted that Pell was innocent.

Portelli’s testimony and ‘alibi’ was dissected in the 323-page judgement passed to Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, Justice Chris Maxwell and Justice Mark Weinberg of the Victorian Supreme Court.  Highlights of the details follow:

The cardinal’s robes

Part of cardinal Pell’s appeal argumentation was that it was physically impossible for him to move his heavy cardinal’s robes in such a way as the victim had alleged.

Pell’s defence produced evidence from Monsignor Charles Portelli, Pell’s prefect of ceremonies, and the sacristan Maxwell Potter.

Both had insisted that it was not possible to pull the Cardinal’s robes to the side because of their weight.

The jury, however, was given access to the robes and found they could be moved. Two appeals judges, Ferguson and Maxwell, said this was reasonable – even with the cincture “firmly tied at the waist.” They said in their summary: “The robes were an exhibit at the trial and had been available to the jury in the jury room during their deliberation.

“Having taken advantage of the opportunity to feel the weight of the robes and assess their manoeuvrability as garments, the chief justice and Justice Maxwell decided that it was well open to the jury to reject the contention of physical impossibility.

“The robes were not so heavy nor so immoveable as the evidence of Monsignor Portelli and Mr Potter had suggested. The chief justice and Justice Maxwell found that the robes were capable of being manoeuvred in a way that might be described as being moved or pulled to one side or pulled apart.”

Reliance had been placed on categorical statements by Portelli and by Potter that it was not possible to pull the alb to the side while the cincture was tied at the waist.

In response, senior counsel for the Crown invited the members of the court to try on the robes. They were an exhibit at the trial and, we were told, had been available to the jury in the jury room during their deliberation. Counsel for Cardinal Pell did not demur.

In final address, the prosecutor invited the jury to feel the weight of the alb and “assess its manoeuvrability as a garment.” This gave the jury the opportunity, counsel submitted, “to assess whether what [A] described as having occurred is physically possible or impossible.” Having taken advantage of that opportunity ourselves, we consider that it was well open to the jury to reject the contention of physical impossibility.

The alb was neither so heavy nor so immoveable as the evidence of Portelli and Potter had suggested.

“To our observation,” the appeals court found, “it was well capable of being manoeuvred — while the cincture was firmly tied at the waist — in a way that might be described as being moved or pulled to one side or pulled apart.”

Reservations over Portelli’s reliability

The defence had also appealed that the timing of the alleged abuse was impossible, relying on the evidence of Portelli.

Pell’s team argued he was “never left alone while he was robed and that on 15 and 22 December 1996 he remained on the cathedral steps after Mass talking to parishioners, such that he could not have been in the priests’ sacristy as alleged.”

But Ferguson and Maxwell found that Portelli’s evidence did not necessarily contradict the victim’s, or make it impossible.

“[Portelli] did not have any independent recollection of the particular Sundays in December 1996. Although he had affirmed propositions put to him in cross-examination, he could not – unprompted – answer questions about those occasions.

“In our view, Portelli’s evidence – taken as a whole – did not compel the jury to have a doubt about A’s evidence. On the contrary, in our view, the jury were entitled to have reservations about the reliability of Portelli’s affirmative answers under cross-examination.

“Portelli properly accepted the possibility that Cardinal Pell might on occasion have stayed on the cathedral steps only ‘for a short period of time before returning to the sacristy’. He also accepted that there may have been occasions on which he did not himself accompany the cardinal back to his sacristy after mass and that, even if he had escorted the cardinal back, he might not have gone into the priests’ sacristy with him.

“The jury were entitled to view those answers, and the evidence more generally, as leaving open the realistic possibility that Cardinal Pell was ‘alone in the sacristies only a few minutes after the end of mass’. It was possible that on either 15 or 22 December 1996 he did not stay on the front steps for long.”

However, Weinberg took a different view, both on the credibility of the victim, the credibility of Portelli and the issue of improbability.

The divide over Portelli

Weinberg had differed from Ferguson and Maxwell on the reliability of Portelli – as well as other witnesses for Pell.

The summary of the judgment said that the weight of other ‘cogent’ and ‘impressive’ evidence against the witness made the conviction unreasonable for Weinberg.

“If the complainant’s evidence was the only evidence, [Weinberg] might well have found it difficult to say that the jury, acting reasonably, were ‘bound’ to have a reasonable doubt about the cardinal’s guilt. [Weinberg] went on to note, however, that there was more than just the complainant’s evidence.

“In Justice Weinberg’s view there was a significant body of cogent and, in some cases, impressive evidence suggesting that the complainant’s account was, in a realistic sense, ‘impossible’ to accept.”

The full 323-page document can be seen here

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