Australian court will hear George Pell's final appeal

Australia's High Court on Wednesday agreed to hear former Vatican treasurer George Pell's final appeal to overturn his conviction for sexually assaulting two teenaged choirboys.

Pell, who is in jail serving a six-year sentence handed down by a lower court in March, turned to the High Court after a first appeal upheld his conviction.

The appeal has been referred to a full bench of five or seven judges, with the hearing on the appeal expected in March 2020 at the earliest, a court spokesman said.

Pell, the most senior Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences, will remain in prison while his lawyers prepare for the High Court appeal.

Pell was convicted by a jury in the County Court of Victoria last December of abusing two 13-year-old boys at St Patrick's Cathedral in the late 1990s when he was archbishop of Melbourne. Under the six-year sentence he received in March, he will be eligible for parole in October 2022, when he will be 81.

A first appeal was heard by the state's Court of Appeal, where judges upheld his conviction in a 2-1 majority in August.

Pell's lawyers took the case to the High Court on the basis the Court of Appeal was wrong to have found that the jury's verdict was not unreasonable. Lawyers also argued the majority judges had erred in shifting the burden of proof to the defense to show that it would have been impossible for Pell to have committed the offenses.

The High Court on Wednesday ordered Pell's lawyers to file their arguments for appeal by Janurary 8, with the crown prosecutors' response due on February 5.

Pell no longer has any position in the Vatican but remains a cardinal. The Pope has declined to comment on the case until the appeals process is exhausted.

For Pell to be dismissed from the priesthood, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have to find him guilty following a separate canonical trial or a shorter process.