Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic official, is being released from Barwon Prison today a free man.
The High Court of Australia this morning unanimously overturned a Victorian High Court of Appeal decision that found Cardinal Pell, 78, guilty of abusing two choirboys in the 1960s. Cardinal Pell, archbishop of Melbourne at the time of the offence, was sentenced to six years in prison.
The ruling was handed down by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in an almost empty High Court hearing in Brisbane due to distancing measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Justice Kiefel said the Victorian Court had “failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place”.
The decision ends five years of legal action against Cardinal Pell, although a number of civil cases are due to be launched by those who allege they were abused by him or allege he did nothing to prevent their abuse by other priests.
In a statement issued shortly after the High Court decision, Cardinal Pell said: “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 look forward to reading the judgement and reasons for the decision in detail.
“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.
“The only basis for long-term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.
“A special thanks for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support. I want to thank, in particular, my family for their love and support and what they had to go through; my small team of advisers; those who spoke up for me and suffered as a result, and all my friends and supporters here and overseas.
“Also my deepest thanks and gratitude to my entire legal team for their unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.
“Finally, I am aware of the current health crisis. I am praying for all those affected and our medical frontline personnel.”
Bishop of Ballarat Paul Bird said the case had divided opinions in legal circles and the general community, and particularly in his diocese because of Cardinal Pell’s early connections there.
“Now that the highest court in the land has given a judgement, I hope this will bring some sense of resolution to all those affected by the proceedings,” he said.
The Age reports that the High Court decision does not repudiate Cardinal Pell’s accuser.
“Both Cardinal Pell’s senior counsel Bret Walker SC and Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd QC agreed in their submissions to the court that the choirboy was a credible, believable witness.
“Rather, the decision exposes flaws within the rest of the prosecution case; evidence given by other witnesses at St Patrick’s at the time, which raised doubts about whether Cardinal Pell had an opportunity to commit the crimes he was accused of.”
Meanwhile, Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, said in a statement that her organisation was “absolutely devastated” by the judgement.
“For many survivors, this decision will be crushing as the immense courage it takes to stand up and be seen and heard is enormous,” she said.
Were you surprised by today’s ruling or did you expect it?
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