George Pell: Cardinal walks free after court quashes child sex convictions

Elias Hubbard
April 9, 2020

The Vatican welcomed the Australian court's ruling, praising Pell for having "waited for the truth to be ascertained".

The High Court ordered Pell's convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place, ending the most high profile case of alleged historical sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic Church.

The court found that the jury that convicted the cleric of molesting Witness J and his friend, both 13 years old at the time, should have had a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

Cardinal Bell has maintained his innocence since he was charged by police in June 2017.

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

"We respect the decision of the High Court in this matter and continue to provide support to those complainants involved", it said in a statement.

"It is hard in child sexual abuse matters to satisfy a criminal court that the offending has occurred beyond the shadow of a doubt", the man, referred to as Witness J in the case, said in a statement.

"I would hate to think that one outcome of this case is that people are discouraged from reporting to the police". He had spent more than 400 days behind bars.

Pope Francis compared the suffering of those inflicted with unjust sentences today to the way Jewish community elders persecuted Jesus with "obstinacy and rage even though he was innocent". He did not mention Cardinal Pell by name.

Meanwhile, the cardinal himself said in a statement released on Tuesday morning he had always maintained his innocence and had suffered a "serious injustice".

The Vatican has previously said Pell would face a canonical investigation after all his appeals had been exhausted in Australia, but it is not known what effect his acquittal will have on any church investigation.

The pope appointed Pell to overhaul the Vatican's vast finances in 2014 and has withheld comment on the case throughout the trial and appeals.

The Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement they were "dismayed and heartbroken" by the decision.

"This is a disappointing ruling that only exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel", SNAP Australia said in a statement.

The High Court referred to the "unchallenged evidence" of witnesses in the trial to Pell's practice of talking to the congregation on the cathedral stairs after Mass, church practice that required him to be accompanied in the cathedral while robed and the "continuous traffic in and out of the priests' sacristy" as causes for reasonable doubt.

Pell was found guilty in 2018 on one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and on four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16. The first trial ended in a jury deadlock and the second unanimously convicted him on all charges. Pell did not take the stand at either trial.

In his appeal to the High Court, Cardinal Pell argued that the jury's verdict had relied too heavily on Witness J's evidence.

Cardinal Pell appealed against the verdict previous year, but judges in another court upheld the decision by a 2-1 majority.

But he was freed from prison yesterday when the High Court in Brisbane granted his leave to appeal.

The other boy who alleged he was abused by Pell died from a drug overdose in 2014. "I hope that everyone who has followed this case is OK".

The Blue Knot Foundation, a victim support group, said the decision would be "crushing" for survivors of abuse.

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