Cardinal George Pell has been released from Barwon Prison after the Australian High Court officially overturned the historical child sexual abuse convictions laid against him.
Seventy-eight-year-old Pell, who was once the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, had served thirteen months of a six-year jail sentence after a jury found him guilty in 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
Known as the highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader to ever be found guilty of sexually abusing children, 78-year-old Pell walked free today after a panel of seven judges found that the jury had not entertained the doubt that Pell could be guilty.
“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 (Pell’s) guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted,” the High Court said in a statement.
The judges noted that “compounding improbabilities” from the verdicts of the five counts reached in 2018 were “unreasonable or cannot be supported by the evidence.”
As a result, there was “a significant possibility,” the judges wrote in summarizing the case, “that an innocent person has been convicted.”
The verdict, handed down by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, to a nearly empty courtroom in Brisbane due to COVID-19 social distancing measures has left Australians and those around the world in shock.
Despite Pell maintaining his innocence throughout his convictions, many in Australia except his die-hard advocates had come to accept Pell’s guilt as fact.
Pell failed in a Victorian Court of Appeal bid in August last year, with two out of three judges finding that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find him guilty.
The former Vatican Treasurer was convicted on the allegations of one of the choirboys, now in his 30s, who came forward in 2015 after the death of the other boy, then 31, from a heroin overdose.
Pell was convicted on one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16, as well as four counts of committing an indecent act with a child after a Sunday mass in December 1996.
In a statement released by Pell before he was driven from the gates of Barwon Prison, the first since December 2018 after he was convicted, Pell affirmed that he was innocent had committed no such crimes while he was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne in the 90s.
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” the statement read.
“This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.
Pell also noted that he holds no “ill-will” towards the choirboy whose testimony was at the centre of his prosecution, and emphasized that his case represented his actions, not the Catholic Church’s.
“My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church,” Pell said.
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”
Former Australian prime minister and now the chairwoman of Beyond Blue, Julia Gillard, established the 2012 royal commission into child sexual abuse and today took to Twitter to encourage those struggling with the High Court’s decision to seek support.
“Recovery from sexual abuse in childhood can be complex and can take time. For many people, particularly those who have experienced trauma, today’s news may bring a range of emotions. It’s important to know that support is available,” Gillard Tweeted.