A former Vatican treasurer who was serving six years in jail for child sex crimes is set to walk free after Australia’s highest court unanimously overturned his conviction on Tuesday.
In December 2018, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of five counts of sexual abuse — one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child — against two choirboys in the mid-1990s, while he served as Archbishop of Melbourne.
(Cardinal George Pell leaves Barwon Prison on April 07, 2020 in Geelong, Australia.)[Getty/Kyodo]
At the time of his conviction, he was the world’s most senior Catholic figure to be found guilty of child sexual abuse.
In the verdict handed down Tuesday, all seven High Court justices concluded that the jury “ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt,” particularly with regard to whether Pell had reasonable opportunity to commit the acts that were alleged to have occurred in the priests’ sacristy following a Sunday service.
So-called opportunity witnesses who testified at the 2018 trial described Pell’s movements following the service. However, the justices determined that none of them could say with absolute certainty that their recollection of the day was accurate, therefore leaving open the possibility that Pell’s own account was correct.
It was noted in the ruling that prosecutors failed to challenge evidence given by the opportunity witnesses and to “engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place.”
The justices did note, however, that the jury had “assessed the complainant’s evidence as credible and reliable” but said they should have entertained a reasonable doubt as to Pell’s guilt.
In a statement released soon after the acquittal, Pell said his trial was neither a “referendum on the Catholic church; nor a referendum on how church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the church.”
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he said.
Pell added he held “no ill will” toward his accuser, nor did he want his acquittal to “add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel.”
Even though Pell was accused of abusing two choirboys, only one testified against him after the other died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at age 31.
Australian media reported that the surviving witness said he felt compelled to come forward with his allegations after the other choirboy’s death.
A ruling by the High Court marks the conclusion of the legal process in Australia, meaning the verdict cannot be further appealed.