In Depth

Cardinal George Pell walks free after shocking convictions overturned

Former Vatican treasurer was serving a six-year sentence for child sex abuse

Cardinal George Pell has been released from jail after Australia’s highest court overturned his conviction for child sexual abuse.

In 2018, a jury found the former Vatican treasurer, now 78, abused two boys in Melbourne in the 1990s, making Pell the most senior figure in the Catholic Church ever jailed for such crimes.

He received a six-year prison term following a unanimous jury decision. 

What happened in the original case?

In December 2018, a jury found Pell guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in private rooms at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the mid-1990s.

The convictions, which dated back to when Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne, included one count of sexual penetration and four counts of committing indecent acts, the BBC reports.

The trial heard testimony from a man who claimed to be the sole surviving victim of the assault, the broadcaster adds. The second alleged victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014.

The surviving victim said he went to the police to report abuse after attending his friend’s funeral, according to Deutsche Welle (DW).

The Guardian reports that the “allegations had been the prosecution’s to prove”, adding that many of the witnesses called during the trial in 2018, including former altar servers and senior choir managers, were now elderly.

“Former choirboys who gave evidence struggled to remember details about the choir procession and the church layout more than two decades after the fact,” the paper adds.

Pell did not testify at the trial, though the jury saw a video of his recorded statement during police interviews in Rome in October 2016. 

“The allegations involve vile and disgusting conduct contrary to everything I hold dear and contrary to the explicit teachings of the church which I have spent my life representing,” Pell read from a statement at the time.  

However, Pell was unanimously convicted and later had an appeal rejected at the Victoria Court of Appeal after judges ruled against him in a 2-1 majority decision.

What has happened now?

Pell has now been freed from prison in Geelong, near Melbourne, and had his convictions overturned following a two-year legal battle.

The bench of the high court in Brisbane, Australia, granted leave for Pell to appeal, ordering his immediate release and quashing the conviction.

The Guardian reports that the court found the jury that convicted Pell “ought to have entertained a doubt as to Pell’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted”.

“In other words,” the paper adds, “it was not enough that the jurors found the witness believable, compelling and honest. The other evidence should have called his account into question.”

Pell’s lawyers did not seek to discredit that testimony, the BBC says, but rather argued that the jury had not properly considered other evidence.

The High Court agreed, deciding that other testimonies had introduced “a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place”.

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What has the reaction been?

While there was quiet in the court owing to restrictions on the number of people present during the coronavirus pandemic, “the decision to quash Cardinal Pell’s conviction brought jeers, tears and some cheers across Australia”, writes BBC reporter, Simon Atkinson.

Cardinal Pell said an injustice had been “remedied”, and said he held “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,” he said in a statement

“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 father of the deceased choir boy was in shock at the decision, his lawyer said.

“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 but was ultimately let down by a legal process that forced him to relive his pain and trauma for no benefit,” said lawyer Lisa Flynn.

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, said: “The High Court has made its decision and that must be respected.”

Meanwhile, Pope Francis recalled the “persecution that Jesus suffered” and has prayed for those who suffer “unjust sentences” at mass celebrated at his lodgings at Santa Marta this morning.

While not mentioning Pell by name, Francis said: “I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence [against them].”

The BBC reports that the Pope had not stripped Pell of his clerical titles while “all legal avenues had not been exhausted”. The broadcaster adds that it is “unclear” if Pell will return to his previous role within the Vatican.


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