Cardinal George Pell welcomed Australia’s highest court clearing him of child sex crimes and said his trial had not been a referendum on the Catholic Church’s handling of the clergy abuse crisis.
Pope Francis’ former finance minister had been the most senior Catholic found guilty of sexually abusing children and spent 13 months in prison before seven High Court judges unanimously dismissed his convictions.
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” the cardinal said in his first public statement since he was convicted in December 2018.
It was released before he left prison and was taken to the Carmelite Monastery in Melbourne where he was greeted by a nun.
Pope Francis appeared to refer to the cardinals acquittal in his morning homily, saying he was praying for all those unjustly persecuted.
The cardinal said: “I hold no ill will toward my accuser”, a former choirboy whose evidence was at the core of the 78-year-old cleric’s prosecution.
The High Court found there was reasonable doubt surrounding the evidence of the witness, now the father of a young family aged in his 30s, who said the then archbishop had abused him and another 13-year-old choirboy at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the late 1990s.
“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 cleric said.
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he added.
A judge and lawyers had urged two juries in 2018 to try the cardinal on the evidence and not on his senior position in the church’s flawed responses to clergy abuse in Australia.
The first trial ended in a jury deadlock and the second unanimously convicted him on all charges.
The Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement they were “dismayed and heartbroken” by the decision.
In these days of #Lent, we've been witnessing the persecution that Jesus underwent and how He was judged ferociously, even though He was innocent. Let us #PrayTogether today for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because of someone had it in for them.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 7, 2020
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher called for the ruling to end the pursuit of the cardinal in the courts.
“I am pleased that the cardinal will now be released and I ask that the pursuit of him that brought us to this point now cease,” Archbishop Fisher said in a statement.
“The cardinal’s vindication today invites broader reflection on our system of justice, our commitment to the presumption of innocence, and our treatment of high-profile figures accused of crimes,” he added.
Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he had never doubted the cardinal’s innocence.
“I had an understanding of the man and my knowledge of him was when he said he was innocent, I accepted that,” he told reporters.
Where the cardinal will go and whether he will return to Rome has not been announced.
Melbourne residents have been told to stay home except for essentials due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He had stayed at a Sydney seminary when he was free on bail awaiting trial.
He is no longer a member of Francis’ Council of Cardinals or a Vatican official and will lose his right to vote for the next pope on his 80th birthday next year.
The Vatican has previously said the cardinal would face a canonical investigation after all his appeals had been exhausted in Australia, but it is not known what effect his acquittal will have on any church investigation.
Many Australians had already accepted the cardinal was guilty before the High Court decision.
Judge Peter Kidd had berated him in a nationally televised sentencing hearing last year for a breach of trust that had an element of brutality a sense of impunity.
“I see this as callus, brazen offending — blatant,” Judge Kidd said.
St Patrick’s College, where the cardinal was educated in his hometown of Ballarat, removed his name from a building and from the school honour board.
But the Australian Catholic University kept its Pell Centre on its Ballarat campus until the appeal process was completed, angering academic staff.
The university’s president, Greg Craven, said the cardinal should never have been charged.
“This was a case that always had a reasonable doubt a mile wide,” Mr Craven said.
“The High Court unanimously — seven-nil — said the Victorian justice system got it hopelessly wrong.”
The cardinal had been serving a six-year sentence after he was convicted of sexually assaulting the two boys in December 1996 and convicted of indecently assaulting one of the boys by painfully squeezing his genitals after a mass in early 1997.
The cardinal was regarded as the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official when he voluntarily returned to Melbourne in 2017 determined to clear his name of dozens of decades-old child abuse allegations.
All the charges were dropped or dismissed over the years except the cathedral allegations.
He did not give evidence at either trial or at the subsequent appeals.
But the juries saw his emphatic denials in a police interview that was video recorded in a Rome airport hotel conference room in October 2016.
The complainant first went to police in 2015 after the second alleged victim died of a heroin overdose at the age of 31.
Neither can be identified under state law.
Lawyers for the father of the dead man, who also cannot be identified, said the verdict left him “in utter disbelief”.
Lawyers for the complainant said he was likely to make a statement on Wednesday.
Much of the hearing at the High Court last month had focused on whether the jury should have had a reasonable doubt about the cardinal’s guilt and whether he could have time to molest the boys in five or six minutes immediately after a mass.
The Victorian Court of Appeal found in a 2-1 majority in August that the cardinal had had enough time to abuse the boys and that the unanimous guilty verdicts were sound.
But the High Court found the appeals court was incorrect.
Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd told the High Court last month that the surviving choirboy’s detailed knowledge of the layout of the priests’ sacristy supported his accusation that the boys were molested there.
The High Court referred to the “unchallenged evidence” of witnesses in the trial to the cardinal’s practice of talking to the congregation on the cathedral stairs after mass, church practice that required him to be accompanied in the cathedral while robed and the “continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy” as causes for reasonable doubt.
The High Court statement said: “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.”