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Cardinal George Pell acquitted by High Court, freed from Barwon Prison

Acquitted: Cardinal George Pell was acquitted of historic sexual abuse convictions after serving more than 400 days in custody. (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

CARDINAL George Pell has been released from prison after the High Court of Australia quashed his child sexual assault convictions.

The 78-year-old, was serving a six years prison term, and has spent more than 400 days behind bars in Victorian jails.

“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice, ” Cardinal Pell said in a statement issued soon after the High Court  overturned his conviction, and before he was driven out of the high-security Barwon Prison, south west of Melbourne.

“I hold no ill will to my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.

“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.”

The unanimous ruling by seven high court judges, comes during Holy Week, and was announced by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel under COVID-19 restrictions in a near-empty courtroom in Brisbane.

Australia’s most senior Catholic became the highest-ranking church official to be jailed for sexually abusing children when, in 2018, a County Court jury convicted him of attacks on two choirboys more than two decades earlier.

The High Court ruling quashed Cardinal Pell’s conviction based on allegations that the prelate had abused the choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 and 1997, soon after he became Archbishop of Melbourne.

One of the boys gave evidence against Cardinal Pell, while the second died in 2014, without disclosing any abuse.

A jury found Cardinal Pell guilty of five counts of sexual abuse, although he had always maintained his innocence.

The full judgement of the High Court takes aim at the Court of Appeal in Victoria, that last year dismissed Pell’s appeal by a majority of two-to-one.

The High Court judgement goes right to heart of the question of “reasonable doubt”, saying that in the case of the Court of Appeal, their Honours’ analysis “failed to engage with the question of whether … there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.

“The unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant’s account, and described: (i) the applicant’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass; (ii) the established and historical Catholic church practice that required that the applicant, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral; and (iii) the continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass,” the High Court said.

During the High Court Appeal, Cardinal Pell’s lawyer, Bret Walker SC told a seven-judge panel that key parts of the evidence presented at the 2018 trial must have given the jurors reasonable doubt.

Their testimony supported Cardinal Pell’s practice, when Archbishop of Melbourne in December 1996, of standing on the cathedral steps after Sunday Mass to greet parishioners and the “hive of activity” that surrounded the priests’ sacristy at the time the abuse is said to have occurred.

Monsignor Charles Portelli and sacristan Max Potter were key witnesses in supporting the defence case that Cardinal Pell could not have offended.

Former Victorian Chief Magistrate, Nick Papas QC, said the High Court ruling showed that the possibility of doubt could not be excluded in a court case.

 “In the end beyond reasonable doubt means a jury has to be satisfied that they can exclude all other possibilities of innocence. And in circumstances when you have competing versions it’s not which version is preferred, it’s the ability to be satisfied that the possibility of innocence has been excluded,” he said.

“And so you might have an occasion when witnesses are perfectly believable, as was apparently the case in Cardinal Pell’s case.

“Still, once you have other evidence how can you be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt.

“And that’s why the High Court, operating as a safety value here has found Cardinal Pell not guilty.”

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the quashing of Cardinal Pell’s convictions would be welcomed by many, including those who have believed the cardinal was innocent.

“We also recognise that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others. Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

He said the Church maintained “an unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse”.

“The safety of children remains supremely important not only for the bishops, but for the entire Catholic community. Any person with allegations of sexual abuse by Church personnel should go to the police,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher thanked the judges for their “meticulous review of the facts” and detailed judgement.

“I am pleased that the Cardinal will now be released and I ask that the pursuit of him that brought us to this point now cease,” Archbishop Fisher said in a statement.

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