Cardinal Pell’s verdict hangs on the credibility of a Maltese priest

Mgr. Charles Portelli - his testimony is crucial to the appeal of Cardinal John Pell

The appeal verdict on Cardinal John Pell of Melbourne, which is expected tomorrow, hangs on the credibility the three judges of the Appeals Court give to a Maltese priest as against the victims of one of the abused victims.

Cardinal Pell has been accused of molesting two choirboys in 1996 and 1997 when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. A jury had found the cardinal guilty and he was sentenced for a six years term imprisonment.  The Prelate appealed from this sentence.

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. At that time, Monsignor Charles Portelli was a master of ceremonies at the 11 a.m. Sunday Masses where the choir sang and the Cardinal officiated.

Bishop never left alone

A centuries-old church law dictates that bishops must never be left alone while vested. Pell would only have gone to the sacristy to disrobe, and that was always done with the help of at least one other cleric. In the case in question the cleric was Mgr. Portelli.

Prosecutors disagreed, saying Monsignor Charles Portelli was the only witness who testified to have been with Pell at the relevant Masses, but that there were occasions when Portelli did not accompany Pell to the sacristy.

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

Portelli had testified that on the two days in question 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 priest 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.

Undermining witnesses

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 alleged that he and another choirboy had been molested.

“They had tried to bamboozle the sacristan 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.

Boyce accused Mgr. Portelli of assisting the defense by purporting not to 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  independent assessment,” Walker told the three appeals judges, who are to issue their ruling today.

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

Victim vs Portelli

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.