07.04.2020 Europe

Court overturns ex-Vatican treasurer George Pell's sex abuse conviction

William WEST / AFP
LISTEN APR 7, 2020
William WEST / AFP

Australia's highest court has acquitted former Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell of sexually assaulting two teenaged choirboys in the 1990s. The former number three of the Catholic Church was immediately released from jail in Melbourne.

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 had maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process.

He issued a statement saying that a "serious injustice" had been remedied by the decision.

A jury convicted Pell 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 verdict. He spent 13 months in prison.

But Australia's High Court found there was "a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted".

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".

The prosecution's case had relied heavily on the testimony of Pell's 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.

'Utter disbelief'    

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

"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."

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

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

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

“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."

Local media footage showed him being driven from prison to a Carmelite monastery in suburban Melbourne.

Empty courtroom

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the "discussion of these topics brings back great hurt" for victims, and his thoughts were "always with them".

"But the High Court, the highest court in the land, has made its decision and that must be respected," he continued.

The verdict was delivered to a near-empty Brisbane courtroom because of Coronavirus restrictions, in stark contrast to earlier hearings that drew large crowds.

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

Pope Francis appeared to refer to Pell's acquittal in his morning homily, saying he was praying for all those unjustly persecuted.

George Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges but his legal problems might not be at an end, as he faces possible civil action.

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