After nearly a four year battle to prove his innocence, Australian Catholic Cardinal George Pell was freed from prison Monday night after the Australian high court overturned his conviction on five counts of sex abuse of a minor.
Cardinal Pell was accused of sexual abuse by two former choir boys who contended that Pell cornered them after a Sunday Mass in 1997, when Pell was serving as the Archbishop of Melbourne. One of the boys claimed Pell, in full bishop’s regalia, exposed himself in a hallway immediately after Mass and forced he and another boy to commit sexual acts. The first complainant also alleged that Pell fondled him sometime in 1997, according to Catholic News Service.
Pell maintained his innocence, calling the accusations not just inflammatory but impossible, given that he regularly greeted parishioners immediately after Masses on Sunday, that his status required a chaperone be with him at all times, and that the boys’ story was simply implausible given how many people are involved in the post-Mass procession.
“The man claimed that Pell cornered them in the priest’s sacristy and forced them to perform sex acts. No one witnessed the alleged attack and there was no physical evidence, just one man’s word against another’s. The alleged victim’s testimony has never been released, but the jury found him so convincing they reached an unanimous guilty verdict,” CNN reported.
Pell was sentenced him to six years in prison in a maximum security facility. An appellate court upheld the conviction. Catholics across the world objected, claiming that Pell was being unjustly targeted in a dragnet designed to convict Catholic ministers of sexual abuse, even absent evidence.
But throughout the ordeal, and subsequent appeals, Pell maintained his innocence and, on Monday, Australia’s highest court agreed that Pell had been the victim of an unfair trial and ordered that “the appellant’s convictions be quashed and judgments of acquittal be entered in their place.”
“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place,” the court said in its decision.
It was even harsher on the appellate court than the initial trial. That court, the High court said, “failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt.”
The High Court found plenty of evidence that created a reasonable doubt, they said, that Pell had ever committed a crime: “The unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant’s account, and described: (i) the applicant’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass; (ii) the established and historical Catholic church practice that required that the applicant, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral; and (iii) the continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass.”
“The assumption that a group of choristers, including adults, might have been so preoccupied with making their way to the robing room as to fail to notice the extraordinary sight of the Archbishop of Melbourne dressed ‘in his full regalia’ advancing through the procession and pinning a 13 year old boy to the wall, is a large one,” the High Court added, casting a large shadow of doubt on the accusers “convincing” testimony.
The High Court decision can’t be challenged, and Pell has already been allowed to leave prison. He is reported to have celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving after being released Monday night. He is not off the hook for everything yet, however — he will still face a “canonical proceeding in Rome, overseen by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”