Former Vatican Treasurer, Cardinal George Pell has been freed from prison after Australia’s High Court unanimously quashed his conviction on five counts of historical child sex abuse.
Pell who is the highest ranking Catholic official to ever be publicly accused of child sex offenses, was accused of abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the mid-1990s. Before being convicted and handed a 6-year jail sentence, he repeatedly denied the allegation and also described it as a “product of fantasy” in a police interview in 2016.
While a three-judge panel in Victoria state’s Court of Appeal upheld a 2018 conviction of the former Vatican treasurer in August 2019, Australia’s High Court found 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”. 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”.
On Tuesday April 7, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel ended the five-year legal battle that started when a man in his 30s approached the police alleging Pell had abused him as a child in the mid-1990s.
The High court which overturned Pell’s conviction on one count of sexual penetration of a child and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child, also ordered the removal of the Cardinal’s name in Australia’s register of child sex offenders.
Upon being released from Prison, Pell said he held “no ill will” toward his accuser. He said;
“I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough…. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”
The 78-year-old cleric was driven out of the gates of Victoria’s Barwon Prison, less than three hours after the ruling. He was seen seated in the back seat of a car, while being driven to a helicopter.
The Vatican also welcomed the acquittal, praising Pell in its first official statement for having “waited for the truth to be ascertained”. Pope Francis who spoke at a mass celebrated at his lodgings at Santa Marta on Tuesday morning, prayed for those suffering from unjust sentences.
“I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence [against them].”
Though Pope Francis did not mention Pell’s name, he compared the suffering of those inflicted with “unjust sentences” to the way Jewish community elders persecuted Jesus with “obstinacy and rage even though he was innocent”.
He also tweeted;
“In these days of Lent, we’ve been witnessing the persecution that Jesus underwent and how He was judged ferociously, even though He was innocent.
“Let us pray together today for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because someone had it in for them.”
Cardinal Pell was sentenced in February 2019, days before his five-year term as Vatican treasurer expired. He was number three in the Vatican hierarchy at that time, and was in charge of the Holy See’s finances and of rooting out corruption.
He is three years past the age at which bishops and Vatican officials normally hand in their resignation, and is not expected to return to a Holy See job.