Cardinal George Pell has been released from prison after 405 days behind bars after the seven judges of the High Court of Australia unanimously overturned the original December 2018 jury verdict that found him guilty on five counts of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996.
The court’s decision, read April 7, concluded there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”
A few hours later, the 78-year-old Cardinal Pell was driven from Barwon prison to a Carmelite monastery in Melbourne.
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Cardinal Pell said in a statement, adding that he holds “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,” he said.
The Vatican said in a statement that it “welcomes the High Court’s unanimous decision concerning Cardinal George Pell, acquitting him of the accusations of abuse of minors and overturning his sentence.”
The statement said the Holy See “has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority,” and noted “Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence and has waited for the truth to be ascertained.”
“At the same time,” the statement continued, “the Holy See reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.”
The court reversed the result of Cardinal Pell’s June 2019 appeal to the Victoria Supreme Court, which had upheld the jury verdict by a majority of 2-1. The High Court said the Victoria court should have overturned the verdict based on reasonable doubt about the cardinal having an opportunity to commit the offenses immediately after a Mass in the Melbourne cathedral.
The most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sexual offenses, Cardinal Pell, the prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, originally was sentenced to six years in prison—with a possibility of parole after three years and eight months—for sexually abusing two choirboys in 1996 and 1997. One of the men has since died.
“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offenses for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place,” the brief judgment stated.
The High Court agreed with Cardinal Pell’s legal counsel who argued that the judges on the Victoria court did not take into account the testimony of a witness who said that the cardinal, who was archbishop of Melbourne at the time, might not have had the opportunity to commit the offenses, thus raising reasonable doubt about his guilt, and therefore should have overturned the jury decision.
Australia’s final court of appeal issued its judgment less than a month after a two-day hearing by the justices March 9-10.
Cardinal Pell said in his statement that “my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church, nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.
“The only basis for long-term healing is truth, and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all,” he said, adding “a special thanks for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support.” —CNS