Australian High Court quashes conviction of ex-Vatican treasurer Cardinal Pell for sex offences

In a photo taken on Feb 26, 2019, Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (REUTERS, AFP) - Australia's highest court on Tuesday overturned former Vatican treasurer George Pell's conviction for sexually assaulting two teenaged choirboys in the 1990s, allowing the 78-year-old cardinal to walk free from jail.

In a unanimous ruling, the High Court found that the jury in Pell's trial "ought to have entertained a doubt" as to Cardinal Pell's guilt.

The court's seven judges ordered that the convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.

Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges, ending the most high profile case globally of alleged sexual abuse by priests to have rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

He said his acquittal remedied "a serious injustice", but that he held "no ill will" towards his accuser.

"I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough," the cleric said in a statement issued before his imminent release from prison.

Pell added that his 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".

Pell, a polarising figure in Australia for his conservative views, was the highest ranked Catholic official worldwide to have been jailed for child sex offences when he began serving a six-year sentence a year ago.

The cardinal was charged in 2017 with 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.

The judgment was delivered during Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter which is the most important day in the Christian calendar, following two days of hearings a month ago.

The decision was delivered to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of national restrictions on travel and public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

Under Australia's court system, his first appeal went to a court in Victoria, where a majority of two judges against one upheld his conviction.

Pell's lawyers then took the case to the High Court, arguing that the Victoria appeals court had erred in shifting the onus of proof to the defence and in finding that it was open to the jury to find Pell guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

The High Court said the lower court of appeal had "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 cardinal was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to overhaul the Vatican's vast finances but lost his role last year after being jailed.

Pope Francis has said he would only comment on the case after Pell exhausted all avenues of appeal.

He has remained a cardinal despite pressure on the church from victims of sexual abuse and their advocates to dismiss him.

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