Former Vatican treasurer acquitted of abuse offences after appeal

Cardinal George Pell was freed after 404 days in an Australian prison

epa08347187 George Pell leaves HM Prison Barwon, in Anakie, Victoria, Australia, 07 April 2020. Cardinal George Pell will be released from prison after his conviction on five counts of historical child sex abuse was overturned by Australia's High Court.  EPA/JAMES ROSS  AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT  BEST QUALITY
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Australia's highest court acquitted former Vatican treasurer George Pell on Tuesday of abusing two teenaged choirboys in the 1990s.

The High Court ordered Mr Pell's convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.

The seven judges of the High Court agreed unanimously that the jury in the cardinal's trial "ought to have entertained a doubt" about his guilt. Mr Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges.

A judge and lawyers had urged two juries in 2018 to try Pell on the evidence and not on his senior position in the church's responses to clergy abuse in Australia. The first trial ended in a jury deadlock and the second unanimously convicted him on all charges.

Mr Pell was released on Tuesday after 404 days in jail and was taken to the Carmelite Monastery in Melbourne where he was greeted by a nun.

“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Mr Pell said in his first public statement since he was convicted in December 2018.

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

"I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence," Pope Francis said, speaking extemporaneously at the start of the Mass.

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

Mr Pell said he held “no ill will toward my accuser”, a former choirboy whose testimony was at the core of the 78-year-old cleric’s prosecution.

His accuser is now in his 30s and the father of a young family. He said Mr Pell had abused him and another 13-year-old choirboy at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the late 1990s.

The accuser had said the offences took place shortly after Sunday Masses, in the priests' sacristy and corridor of the cathedral.

The High Court judges pointed to unchallenged evidence from church officials at Mr Pell's trial that he typically spent time talking to congregants on the church steps after Mass, he was always accompanied by a priest while robed and the sacristy was usually a hive of activity after Mass.

A man cycles past the Carmelite Monastery in Melbourne on April 7, 2020, where Cardinal George Pell is staying after been released from Barwon Prison earlier in the day. Pell left jail a free man on April 7 after Australia's High Court quashed his child sex abuse convictions. / AFP / William WEST

The lower appeals court and the trial jury watched a video of his accuser's testimony, described by the prosecutor as "powerful and persuasive". The High Court did not view it and said it should not have been necessary for the appeal court to have viewed it.

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

The second alleged victim in the case died in 2014 of a drug overdose. His father, who is pursuing a civil case against Mr Pell, said through his lawyer Lisa Flynn he was "in shock" and "furious" a conviction by a unanimous jury had been overturned.

"Our client says he is heartbroken for [his son's friend, the accuser in the case] who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story," Ms Flynn said.

Vivian Waller, a lawyer for the accuser, said her client would make a statement on Wednesday.

While the trial and appeals were held in courtrooms packed with media and supporters for both sides, Tuesday's decision was delivered to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of national restrictions on travel and public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the acquittal would be welcomed by many and "devastating for others".

"The result today does not change the Church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse," said Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the conference.