JUST hours after Cardinal George Pell was released from gaol Pope Francis spoke during Mass about the “persecution that Jesus suffered” and prayed for those “who suffer an unjust sentence”.
The High Court of Australia acquitted Cardinal Pell of child sexual abuse during a brief sitting in Brisbane yesterday (April 7), allowing the 78-year-old to be driven free from Victoria’s Barwon prison.
The Vatican issued a statement that it “has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority,” and noted “Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence and has waited for the truth to be ascertained.”
“At the same time,” the statement continued, “the Holy See reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.”
Cardinal Pell was driven to a Carmelite monastery in Melbourne, and was reported to have and enjoyed a steak for his first “free” meal after more than 400 days behind bars.
“What I am really looking forward to is celebrating a private Mass,” Pell told the Catholic News Agency.
“It has been a very long time, so that is a great blessing.”
Cardinal Pell told CNA he treated his time in prison as a “long retreat,” and a time for reflection, writing, and, above all, prayer.
“Prayer has been the great source of strength to me throughout these times, including the prayers of others, and I am incredibly grateful to all those people who have prayed for me and helped me during this really challenging time.”
The cardinal said the number of letters and cards he had received from people both in Australia and from overseas was “quite overwhelming.”
The High Court of Australia ruled unanimously (7-0) to overturn the original December 2018 jury verdict that found Cardinal Pell guilty on five counts of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996.
One of the boys gave evidence against Cardinal Pell, while the second died in 2014, without disclosing any abuse.
The High Court’s decision concluded there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Cardinal Pell said in a statement, adding that he holds “no ill will toward 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,” he said
The surviving choirboy (now a man in his 30s), known as Witness J, also issued a statement, stating that he was relieved the appeals process was now over: “It is difficult in child sex abuse matters to satisfy a criminal court that the offending has occurred beyond the shadow of a doubt”.
“It is a very high standard to meet – a very heavy burden. There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice system and the appeal process is one of them. I respect that,” Witness J said in his statement through his lawyer Dr Vivian Waller.
“I understand why criminal cases must be proven beyond all reasonable doubt. No-one wants to live in a society where people can be imprisoned without due and proper process. This is a basic civil liberty.”