The most senior Catholic official to have been found guilty of sexually abusing children has been granted leave to appeal by Australia’s highest court.
The decision allows Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s former finance minister, a final chance at overturning his convictions for molesting two 13-year-old choirboys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s.
The 78-year-old, who was archbishop of Australia’s second largest city at the time of the abuse, was jailed for six years in March.
Victoria state’s Court of Appeal rejected his appeal in August.
His lawyers argued in a 12-page application to the High Court of Australia that two state judges were wrong to require Pell to prove the abuse was impossible, rather than putting the onus on prosecutors.
Pell, who is in prison in Melbourne, was not in court to hear the court’s decision on Wednesday.
SNAP, an abuse victims' support group, said the ruling was a blow to clergy abuse victims and to Australia’s criminal justice system.
"We are disappointed that Cardinal George Pell and his lawyers will have yet another opportunity to attack and re-victimise the former choirboy," spokesman Steven Spaner said.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which represents church leaders in Australia, said he hoped the appeal would be resolved quickly.
"This will prolong what has been a lengthy and difficult process, but we can only hope that the appeal will be heard as soon as reasonably possible and that the High Court's judgment will bring clarity and a resolution for all," he added.
Two of the seven justices — Michelle Gordon and James Edelman — heard Pell's application for an appeal and approved it for a hearing by the full bench. The court rejects around 90 per cent of such applications.
An appeal hearing cannot happen before judges return from their summer break in early February.
Pell's lawyers did not immediately respond when asked if the cardinal would now apply to the High Court to be released from prison on bail.
Professor Jeremy Gans, who heads Melbourne Law School, said the court's decision improved Pell’s prospects of making a successful bail request.
"If he did apply, he's got some good arguments," he added.
Those arguments could include that Pell is serving a relatively short sentence while the court's verdict could be eight months away. His advanced age, health problems and the added dangers he faces behind bars from fellow inmates as a convicted paedophile could also be factors, Prof Gans said.
They also said the two judges erred in finding the jury's guilty verdicts were reasonable. Pell's lawyers argued there was reasonable doubt about whether opportunity existed for the crimes to have occurred.
In their application to appeal, Pell's lawyers also argued changes in law over the years since the abuse was alleged have increased the difficulty in testing sexual assault allegations.
They said Pell should be acquitted of all charges for several reasons, including inconsistencies in the accuser's version of events.
Prosecutors argued there is was basis for the appeal and the Victorian courts made no errors.
Pell was largely convicted on the testimony of one victim. The second victim died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31 and was not known to have complained of abuse.
The victim’s lawyer Vivienne Waller said she spoke on Wednesday to the her client and he was "very respectful of the legal process".
"I can understand that there are many survivors who might feel disappointed by the outcome and I can also understand that there are a lot of people who feel very deeply for my client and are concerned for his well-being and those sentiments are greatly appreciated," she added.
The father of Pell's dead victim was devastated by the court's decision, his lawyer Lisa Flynn said.
"He was really hopeful that this would be over for him today because as the process goes on, and has gone on for some time, it is extremely retraumatising for him," Ms Flynn added. "Every appeal that is announced by Pell is a downturn. It brings up the raw emotions."
The father, who cannot be named, intends to sue the church over his son's abuse.
Clerical sexual abuse and the Catholic Church's handling of such cases worldwide have thrown Pope Francis's papacy into turmoil.
In a little more than a year, the pope has acknowledged he made "grave errors" in Chile's worst cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a pedophile, and US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.
Pell must serve at least three years and eight months behind bars before he becomes eligible for parole. As a convicted pedophile, he is provided with extra protection from other inmates and spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement.
Additional reporting by agencies