Australia’s highest court has earlier today overturned the sexual abuse conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader ever found guilty in the church’s clergy paedophilia crisis.
Cardinal Pell, 78, who was the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, was sentenced to six years in prison last March for molesting two 13-year-old boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.
He walks free today after a panel of seven judges ruled that the jury ought to have entertained a doubt about his guilt. The judges cited “compounding improbabilities” to conclude that the verdicts on five counts reached in 2018 were “unreasonable or cannot be supported by the evidence.”
In a statement, Cardinal Pell reiterated his assertion that he had committed no crimes. “I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” he said. “This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.”
The verdict, handed down by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of social distancing measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, shocked Catholics in Australia and around the world.
Cardinal Pell had receded from the public mind during his time in prison, and with the exception of his die-hard supporters, most Australians had come to accept his guilt as an established fact.
His case had dragged on for years. His first trial ended with a hung jury; his second carried on with a heavy shroud of secrecy as suppression orders limited what could be reported or even scrutinized.
The testimony of the case’s most important witness, a former choirboy who had stepped forward with his claims in 2015, was never made public, not even in transcripts. Legal experts said that made it difficult for the public to comprehend the complexity of the case, as well as the High Court’s ultimate ruling.
“Most of us didn’t know any of the details, and none of us have seen the complainant’s testimony,” said Jeremy Gans, a Melbourne Law School professor who has been closely following the case.
The cardinal had been convicted on counts related to two separate incidents when he was the archbishop of Melbourne, making him the first bishop to be found guilty in a criminal court for sexually abusing minors, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
The six-year sentence, which fell far short of the 50-year maximum, was closely scrutinized but held up on its initial appeal, which was based in part on Cardinal Pell’s contention that there was not sufficient evidence to support the convictions.
In its judgment on Tuesday, the High Court found that for all five charges, there were many improbabilities that had not been fully considered by the jury. There is “a significant possibility,” the judges wrote in summarizing the case, “that an innocent person has been convicted.”
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