Ex-Vatican treasurer Pell leaves Australian jail after sex offences acquittal

FILE PHOTO: Cardinal George Pell attends a news conference at the Vatican, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

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.

The seven judges of the High Court agreed unanimously that the jury in the cardinal’s trial “ought to have entertained a doubt” as to his guilt. Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges.

“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 Vatican had no immediate comment on a verdict that comes in the middle of Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter which is the most important day in the Christian calendar. 

Pope Francis, who appointed Pell to overhaul the Vatican’s vast finances in 2014, said previously he would comment only after all avenues of appeal had been exhausted. 

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it was “dismayed and heartbroken” by the outcome.

“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.

Pell 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.

Pell’s first trial ended in a hung jury, before the jury in a second trial unanimously found him guilty in 2018. 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 consider evidence that should have raised doubt that he was guilty.

The High Court cited precedent from an unrelated case that “there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”

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.