Australia’s highest court on Tuesday acquitted former Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell of sexually assaulting two teenaged choirboys in the 1990s, freeing the 78-year-old cardinal after 404 days in jail.
The High Court ordered Pell’s convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place, ending the most high profile case of alleged historical sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic Church.
The seven judges of the High Court agreed unanimously that the jury in the cardinal’s trial “ought to have entertained a doubt” about his guilt. Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges.
“I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” Pell said in a statement shortly before he was driven away from the maximum security Barwon Prison near Melbourne.
The Vatican had no immediate comment on a verdict that comes in the middle of Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter, the most important day in the Christian calendar.
Pope Francis, who appointed to overhaul the Vatican’s vast finances in 2014, said previously he would comment only after all avenues of appeal had been exhausted.
The decision was delivered to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of national restrictions on travel and public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Pell, who is known for his conservative views, remained a cardinal but lost his treasurer role last year when he became the highest ranked Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.
He was serving a six-year sentence on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of an indecent act with a child under 16, which the plaintiff said took place when Pell was archbishop of the city of Melbourne.
Pell’s first trial with over 20 witnesses ended in a hung jury. The jury at his second trial in 2018 unanimously found him guilty. Pell did not take the stand at either trial.
A lower appeal court had upheld Pell’s conviction, but the High Court found it had failed to properly consider evidence that should have raised doubt that he was guilty.
Pell’s accuser, one of two boys the archbishop was alleged to have assaulted, had said the offences took place shortly after Sunday masses, in the priests’ sacristy and corridor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, while Pell was robed.
The High Court judges pointed to evidence from church officials at Pell’s trial that he typically spent time talking to congregants on the church steps after mass, he was always accompanied by a priest while robed, and the sacristy was usually a hive of activity after mass.
The lower appeals court and the trial jury watched a video of his accuser’s testimony, described by the prosecutor as “powerful and persuasive.” But upon questioning by Pell’s barrister, several of the High Court judges raised whether it was proper for the appeals court to have viewed select segments of evidence from the trial, rather than all the evidence that was presented to the trial.
The High Court did not view it and said it should not have been necessary for the appeal court to have viewed it.
The second alleged victim in the case died in 2014 of a drug overdose. His father, who is pursuing a civil case against Pell, said through his lawyer Lisa Flynn he was “in shock” and “furious” a conviction by a unanimous jury had been overturned.
“Our client says he is heartbroken for (his son’s friend, the accuser in the case) who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story,” Flynn of Shine Lawyers said.
Messages of Support for Abuse Victims at ‘Devastating’ Time
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the acquittal would be welcomed by many and “devastating for others.”
“The result today does not change the Church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the conference.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher, acknowledging that some people would struggle with the court’s decision that may reopen old wounds, said that the High Court’s decision was a reflection of “our commitment to the presumption of innocence.”
He said that “justice for victims is never served by the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of anyone.”
Ballarat Bishop Paul Bird said the case had divided opinions in legal circles and the general community, and particularly in his diocese because of Cardinal Pell’s early connections there.
“Now that the highest court in the land has given a judgement, I hope this will bring some sense of resolution to all those affected by the proceedings,” Bishop Bird said on Tuesday.
“The whole process of trials and appeals has been distressing, most immediately for those directly involved in the court proceedings but also for others in the community, including victims and survivors of abuse and their families.”
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it was “dismayed and heartbroken” by the outcome.
“This is a disappointing ruling that only exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel,” SNAP Australia said in a statement.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the day was very challenging for people who have been sexually abused by clergy.
“I make no comment about today’s High Court decision,” he said. “But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”
By Sonali Paul
The Australian Associated Press contributed to this report.