High court acquits Cardinal Pell of child sex abuse

George Pell
Australian Cardinal George Pell (L) leaves after being released from Barwon Prison near Anakie, some 70 kilometres west of Melbourne, on April 7, 2020. Cardinal George Pell's historic child sex abuse convictions were quashed by Australia's High Court on April 7, paving the way for the senior Catholic cleric's release from prison.
William WEST / AFP

BRISBANE, Australia, April 7, 2020 (AFP) - Cardinal George Pell was released from prison on Tuesday, hours after Australia's High Court quashed his conviction for child sex abuse, bringing to an abrupt end the most high-profile paedophilia case faced by the Catholic Church.

The 78-year-old left Barwon Prison near Melbourne after the court overturned five counts of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s.

Pell, who had steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout a lengthy court process, exited the jail where he has been held for the last year and issued a statement saying that a "serious injustice" had been remedied by the decision.

A jury had convicted Pell of the offences in December 2018 and that decision was upheld by a three-judge panel in Victoria state's Court of Appeal last August, in a split 2-1 verdict.

But Australia's High Court found 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 seven justices unanimously found a lower court had "failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place".

However Pell's legal woes may not be at an end, as he faces several possible civil cases including from the father of one of the alleged victims -- now deceased -- who is planning to launch a claim for damages.

The prosecution's case had relied heavily on the testimony of Pell's surviving accuser, who told a closed-door hearing that Pell had sexually assaulted the two boys in a Melbourne cathedral while he was archbishop of the city.

The second choirboy -- who is not known to have ever spoken of the abuse -- died of a drug overdose in 2014. Neither man can be identified for legal reasons.

Lisa Flynn, the lawyer for the deceased man's father, said her client was "disgusted" and "in utter disbelief" at the outcome.

"He is struggling to comprehend the decision by the High Court of Australia. He says he no longer has faith in our country's criminal justice system," she said.

"He is furious the man he believes is responsible for sexually abusing his son was convicted by a unanimous jury only to have that decision overturned today."

Victims' support group the Blue Knot Foundation said the decision would be "crushing" for survivors of abuse.

"The child sexual abuse pandemic within the Catholic Church has threatened the safety of millions of children, the adults they become and the very moral fibre of what it means to be human," said Blue Knot president Cathy Kezelman.

"Pell now has his freedom, but many abuse victims have never been free -- trapped in the horror of the crimes which decimated their lives."

In his statement, Pell thanked his lawyers, supporters and family and said he held "no ill will" toward his 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.

"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."

Coronavirus restrictions meant the verdict was delivered to a near-empty Brisbane courtroom -- in stark contrast to earlier hearings that drew large crowds of his supporters and detractors, the world's media and members of the legal profession.

Pell's lawyers had argued there were "compounding improbabilities" in the case, including that Pell would not have had the time or opportunity to molest the boys in the priests' sacristy after Mass, when he would usually be on the cathedral steps greeting members of the congregation.

The High Court found that though the jury had "assessed the complainant's evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable", unchallenged evidence from other witnesses required the jury "acting rationally" to have "entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant's guilt".

Victoria state police, who had investigated the allegations against Pell, said they "respect the decision" of the High Court and remained "committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed".

Pell's previous trial had been held under a court-ordered veil of secrecy to ensure he received fair treatment.

At the same time, he was quietly removed from top Church bodies but the Vatican resisted launching an internal investigation.

He had been facing a second trial over separate child abuse allegations, though prosecutors decided not to proceed and withdrew all of the charges.

The former Vatican treasurer remains in the priesthood, but his future role in the Catholic Church remains unclear.