Last updated 6pm
Melbourne, Australia

Reuters

Australia's highest court on Tuesday acquitted former Vatican treasurer George Pell of sexually assaulting two teenaged choirboys in the 1990s, allowing the 78-year-old cardinal to walk free from jail.

The High Court ordered Pell's convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place, ending the most high profile case of alleged historical sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic Church.

George Pell Vatican 2017

Cardinal George Pell attends a news conference at the Vatican, on 29th June, 2017. PICTURE: Reuters/Remo Casilli/File Photo

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. Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges.

REACTION TO THE COURT DECISION

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL:
"I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice. This has been remedied today with the High Court's unanimous decision.
     "I hold 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.
     "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." 

 

LISA FLYNN OF SHINE LAWYERS, ACTING FOR FATHER OF ALLEGED VICTIM, WHO DIED IN 2014:
"Our client is currently in shock...he is furious.
     "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. 
"We will continue to pursue a civil claim on behalf of our client despite the High Court’s ruling today." 

 

ARCHBISHOP MARK COLERIDGE, PRESIDENT, AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS CONFERENCE:
"Today's outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the cardinal's innocence throughout this lengthy process. 
     "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.
     "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."

 

AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON:
"Just a mere discussion of these topics brings back great hurt and when these things arise my thoughts are always with them. But the High Court, the highest court in the land has made its decision and that must be respected."

 

SNAP, CHILD ABUSE SURVIVORS NETWORK:
"We are dismayed and heartbroken that Cardinal George Pell has successfully challenged his conviction for sexually abusing two choirboys and will be freed from prison.
"Our hearts ache for the surviving accuser in this case, and we hope that this disappointing ruling does not deter other victims from coming forward to report their abuse."

 

VICTORIA POLICE, WHICH LED PELL INVESTIGATION:
"We respect the decision of the High Court in this matter and continue to provide support to those complainants involved. Victoria Police remains committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed."

 

AUSTRALIAN ATTORNEY-GENERAL CHRISTIAN PORTER:
"Obviously this is a very consequential decision, that will be pored over for years to come.
     "Thoughts are with a whole range of people victims of sexual misconduct and people who have been before the Royal Commission (inquiry into Institutional Child Sex Abuse)."

 

MAUREEN HATCHER, FOUNDER OF SURVIVOR SUPPORT GROUP LOUD FENCE MOVEMENT:
"I just felt incredibly sad for survivors and any survivors who have spoken out. Because to me it was a bit like they’ve just been shot. It’s huge news and it’ll impact on so many people and it’s made even harder because of the isolation at the moment."

 

CATHY KEZELMAN, PRESIDENT OF TRAUMA SUPPORT GROUP BLUE KNOT FOUNDATION:
"We are absolutely devastated ... For many survivors this decision will be crushing as the immense courage it takes to stand up and be seen and heard is enormous.
     "Pell now has his freedom, but many abuse victims have never been free – trapped in the horror of the crimes which decimated their lives." 

 

ANNE BARRETT DOYLE, CO-DIRECTOR, BISHOPACCOUNTABILITY.ORG:
"Though distressing to many survivors, the decision doesn't change the fact that the trial of the powerful cardinal was a watershed."

 

ANDREW DYER, SENIOR LECTURER, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY LAW SCHOOL:
"It's a big thing to overturn a jury's decision, but their Honours did say that this is one of those instances where that had to happen.
     "Ultimately, the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] was unable to explain to the court why these convictions were sound. In those circumstances, I think that really the court almost had no option to find as it did."
     "I think that the conclusions that it has reached are pretty sound on the whole."

"I hold 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," Pell said in a statement shortly before he was driven away from the maximum security Barwon Prison near Melbourne.

The verdict comes in the middle of Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter, the most important day in the Christian calendar. 

An official Vatican comment was expected later on Tuesday. 

A few hours after Pell's acquittal, Pope Francis offered his morning Mass for those who suffer from unjust sentences. Francis did not mention Pell by name.

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

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

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said it was "dismayed and heartbroken" by the verdict.

"This is a disappointing ruling that only exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel," SNAP Australia said in a statement.

Pell, a polarising figure in Australia for his conservative views, remained a cardinal but lost his treasurer role last year when he became the highest ranked Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.

He was serving a six-year sentence on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of an indecent act with a child under 16, which the plaintiff said took place when Pell was archbishop of the city of Melbourne.

Did not take stand
Pell's first trial ended in a hung jury. The jury at his second trial in 2018 unanimously found him guilty. Pell did not take the stand at either trial. 

A lower appeal court had upheld Pell's conviction, but the High Court found it had failed to properly consider evidence that should have raised doubt that he was guilty.

Pell's accuser, one of two boys the archbishop was alleged to have assaulted, had said the offences took place shortly after Sunday masses, in the priests' sacristy and corridor of St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, while Pell was robed.

The High Court judges pointed to unchallenged evidence from church officials at 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.

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. 

"Furious" and "heartbroken"
The second alleged victim in the case died in 2014 of a drug overdose. His father, who is pursuing a civil case against 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," Flynn of Shine Lawyers 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.