MELBOURNE • Australia's highest court yesterday acquitted former Vatican treasurer George Pell of sexually assaulting two choirboys in the 1990s, freeing the 78-year-old cardinal after 404 days in jail.
The High Court ordered Cardinal 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" about his guilt. Cardinal Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges.
"I hold no ill will towards 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," Cardinal Pell said in a statement shortly before he was driven away from the maximum security Barwon Prison near Melbourne.
The verdict comes in the middle of Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter, the most important day in the Christian calendar.
The Vatican yesterday welcomed Cardinal Pell's acquittal, praising him for having "waited for the truth to be ascertained".
In its first official reaction, the Vatican said it had always had confidence in Australian judicial authorities and reaffirmed the Holy See's "commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors".
A few hours after Cardinal Pell's acquittal, Pope Francis offered his morning mass for those who suffer from unjust sentences. Pope Francis did not mention Cardinal Pell by name. "I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence (against them)," Pope Francis said, speaking extemporaneously at the start of the mass.
The Pope appointed Cardinal Pell to overhaul the Vatican's vast finances in 2014 and has withheld comment on the case through the trial and appeals.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) said it was "dismayed and heartbroken" by the verdict. "This is a disappointing ruling that only exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel," Snap Australia said in a statement.
Cardinal 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.
He 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 he was archbishop of the city of Melbourne.
Cardinal Pell's first trial ended in a hung jury. The jury at his second trial, in 2018, unanimously found him guilty. He did not take the stand at either trial.
A lower appeal court had upheld Cardinal Pell's conviction, but the High Court found it had failed to properly consider evidence that should have raised doubt that he was guilty.
Cardinal 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 Cardinal Pell was robed.
The second alleged victim in the case died in 2014 of a drug overdose. His father, who is pursuing a civil case against Cardinal Pell, said through his lawyer Lisa Flynn that he was "in shock" and "furious" a conviction by a unanimous jury had been overturned.
"Our client says he is heartbroken for (his son's friend, the accuser in the case) who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story," Ms Flynn said.
Ms Vivian Waller, a lawyer for the accuser, said her client would make a statement today.