Cardinal George Pell will walk free from prison today after the High Court of Australia ruled he was wrongly jailed for child sexual abuse.
The 78-year-old prelate, was serving a six years prison term, and has spent more than 400 days behind bars in Victorian prisons.
The extraordinary, unanimous ruling by seven high court judges, comes during Holy Week, and was announced by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in a near-empty courtroom in Brisbane this morning.
Australia’s most senior Catholic became the highest-ranking church official to be jailed for sexually abusing children when a County Court jury convicted him of attacks on two choirboys in the 1990s.
The High Court ruling quashes Cardinal Pell’s conviction based on allegations that the prelate had abused two teenaged choir boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1996 and 1997, soon after he became Archbishop of Melbourne.
One of the boys gave evidence against Cardinal Pell, while the second died in 2014, without disclosing any abuse.
A jury found Cardinal Pell guilty of five counts of sexual abuse, although he had always maintained his innocence.
The full judgement of the High Court takes aim at the Court of Appeal in Victoria, that last year dismissed Pell’s appeal by a majority of two-to-one.
The High Court judgement goes right to heart of the question of “reasonable doubt”, saying that in the case of the Court of Appeal, their Honours’ analysis “failed to engage with the question of whether “… there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.
“The unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant’s account, and described: (i) the applicant’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass; (ii) the established and historical Catholic church practice that required that the applicant, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral; and (iii) the continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass.”
During the High Court Appeal, Cardinal Pell’s lawyer, Bret Walker SC told a seven-judge panel that key parts of the evidence presented at the 2018 trial must have given the jurors reasonable doubt.
Their testimony supported Cardinal Pell’s practice, when Archbishop of Melbourne in December 1996, of standing on the cathedral steps after Sunday Mass to greet parishioners and the “hive of activity” that surrounded the priests’ sacristy at the time the abuse is said to have occurred.
Monsignor Charles Portelli and sacristan Max Potter were key witnesses in supporting the defence case that Cardinal Pell could not have offended.
UPDATE: Cardinal Pell gives his statement
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Cardinal George Pell said in a statement.
“This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.
“I look forward to reading the Judgment and reasons for the decision in detail.
“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.
“However 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.
“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.
“A special thanks for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support.
I want to thank in particular my family for their love and support and what they had to go through; my small team of advisors; those who spoke up for me and suffered as a result; and all my friends and supporters here and overseas.
“Also my deepest thanks and gratitude to my entire legal team for their unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.
“Finally, I am aware of the current health crisis. I am praying for all those affected and our medical frontline personnel.”
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s highest court has dismissed the convictions of the most senior Catholic found guilty of child sex abuse.
High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel announced the decision of the seven judges on Tuesday in the appeal of Cardinal George Pell. The decision means he will be released from Barwon Prison outside Melbourne after serving 13 months of a six-year sentence.
Pell had been ordered to serve three years and eight months behind bars before he became eligible for parole.
The High Court found that the Victorian Court of Appeal was incorrect in its 2-1 majority decision in August to uphold the jury verdicts.
Pell was regarded as the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official when he voluntarily returned to Melbourne in July 2017 determined to clear his name of dozens of decades-old child abuse allegations.
All the charges were dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by courts in preliminary hearings over the years except the cathedral allegations.
Pell was tried on the charges twice in 2018, the first County Court trial ending in a jury deadlock.
In the appeal Pell’s lawyer Bret Walker told the High Court that all that the prosecution had to do at his trial and appeals court hearing was to prove that Pell being left alone while robed or not talking with congregants after Mass was “possible” to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
“That … is a grotesque version of the reversal of onus of proof, if all the Crown has to do is to prove the possibility of something,” Walker said.
“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 court said in a statement.