Behind the story

Covering Pell: From silence to sentence

A small group of journalists watched on as George Pell became increasingly frail as he fought, and ultimately lost, his child sexual abuse case. 

Over nearly three months, AAP's court reporters attended every day of Pell's two trials - the first which ended in a hung jury - but they couldn't publish a word at the time.

They took notes and prepared a daily rundown of what happened, not knowing when or if those reports would see the light of day. 

Cardinal George Pell arrives at County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, February 27, 2019. Cardinal Pell, once the third most powerful man in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic, has been found guilty of child sexual abuse after a trial in Melbourne. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett) NO ARCHIVING

A seemingly endless stream of former St Patrick's Cathedral choirboys testified, quizzed about their routine at Sunday mass and Pell's interactions with the choir.

A choir master, priests, a winemaker, an archbishop and a diary-keeping churchgoer were among the other witnesses.

Pell's theatrical lawyer Robert Richter QC put on a show, doing all he could to discredit the victim's testimony and the prosecution case.

Mr Richter said the allegations relied on a series of improbable events taking place, making the story so unlikely as to be almost impossible.

“It is possible, ladies and gentleman of the jury, that a meteor will come out of space and strike this court which we’re standing in,” he said.

“It is possible. But do you plan your life on that basis? I don’t think so.”

That first trial ran for five weeks and ended in a hung jury, meaning the whole thing would have to run again.

The judicial process had clearly taken its toll on the six men and six women of the first jury.

The forewoman began crying after saying they could not reach a verdict, and three other jurors wept too.

Chief Judge Peter Kidd told them “not to be hard on yourself”.

Media and protesters watch the live stream of the sentencing of George Pell from outside County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett) NO ARCHIVING

AAP returned for every day of the retrial, which ended in a unanimous guilty verdict in December.

You could hear a pin drop when the jury of 12 delivered their momentous verdict.

It would be another three months before AAP and other media outlets could report that Pell had been convicted of five child sex offences. 

Judge Kidd lifted the blanket gag order in late February when prosecutors abandoned a second case against Pell on separate charges, and all the graphic details were revealed. 

Abuse survivor and activist Michael Advocate (centre) reacts during the live stream of the sentencing of Cardinal George Pell from outside County Court in Melbourne, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett) NO ARCHIVING

Dozens of journalists from across Australia and the world flocked to the County Court for the momentous news of Pell's crimes. 

There were frantic scenes outside court as Pell was whisked away to his final night of freedom amid an explosion of media coverage and public commentary. 


Members of the public yelled "burn in hell Pell" and "hope you packed your jammies" when Pell walked into court the next day, when he was taken into custody.

And on Wednesday Pell learnt his fate, up to six years in prison, meaning the 77-year-old may well die behind bars.

Protesters react outside County Court after the sentencing of George Pell is handed down in Melbourne, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (AAP Image/Daniel Pockett) NO ARCHIVING

Judge Kidd said Pell's crimes against two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996 and 1997 had been brazen.

Pell denies any wrongdoing and has lodged an appeal which is due to be considered in court in June.

In collaboration with Karen Sweeney and Amber Wilson

Find our more about our court coverage here and see the George Pell file on AAP Photos.

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