Cardinal George Pell has won a High Court appeal against his conviction on historical child sex abuse charges and will be released from prison. The ruling ends a long-running criminal case involving one of Pope Francis’s most trusted advisers.
The judgment of the full bench of Australia’s highest court on Tuesday found that the jury in the original trial should have entertained a reasonable doubt as to Cardinal Pell’s guilt involving two alleged incidents of sexually abusing two choirboys in the mid 1990s.
It ordered that the conviction verdict delivered in Melbourne’s country court in December 2018 be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.
“Today, the High Court granted special leave to appeal against a decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria and unanimously allowed the appeal,” said a summary of the judgment, which was delivered by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel to a near empty courtroom in Brisbane because of social distancing measures introduced to combat the spread of coronavirus.
The summary said 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”.
The conviction of Cardinal Pell, 78, sent shockwaves through the Catholic church, which has battled sexual abuse allegations against clergy for decades. At the time of his conviction, Cardinal Pell was the most senior Roman Catholic official to be found guilty of child sex abuse and a close confidant of Pope Francis, who appointed him the Vatican’s top financial adviser.
Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison in March 2019. He has spent more than 400 days behind bars at Barwon prison in Victoria since his bail was revoked after the initial verdict was made public in February 2019.
In a statement released to Australian media, Cardinal Pell said he had consistently maintained his innocence while suffering from a serious injustice. He said he held no ill will towards his accuser and did not want his acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many people feel.
“My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic church; nor a referendum on how the church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the church. The point was whether I committed these awful crimes and I did not,” said Cardinal Pell.
His acquittal by the High Court after almost three years since being charged by Victorian police brings to an end a legal process that has deeply divided Australia’s legal community, media and society.
Supporters of Cardinal Pell continued to campaign on his behalf in the media following his guilty verdict and when he lost a subsequent appeal in Australia’s Court of Appeal.