CARDINAL George Pell’s 2018 conviction for child sexual abuse has been overturned by the Australian High Court in a unanimous decision released on Tuesday. The Cardinal, who had been serving a six-year prison sentence for the 1996 sexual abuse of two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, when he was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, has now been released (News, 23 August 2019).
In a statement, the Cardinal said that he bore “no ill will” towards his accuser, one of the choirboys on whose evidence both the Victorian County Court and the Court of Appeal based their judgments against him. (The second boy died in 2014, before the allegations were reported to police.) Cardinal Pell said that he had consistently maintained his innocence, “while suffering from a serious injustice”. He said that he did not want his acquittal to “add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel.There is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.”
The seven High Court judges said in their decision 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”. There was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”. The High Court referred to what it called “the unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses” at the 2018 trial, which suggested there was cause for doubt.
Presenting the Cardinal’s appeal before the High Court last month, his lawyers said that evidence from the cathedral sacristan and others was that the sacristy, where the abuse was alleged to have occurred after Sunday mass, was a “hive of activity” at that time. It was “unlikely” if not “improbable”, that the Cardinal could have been alone with the boys at the time of the alleged abuse, the lawyers told the court.
The dissenting judge in the Court of Appeal judgment last August which upheld the conviction had also argued that the evidence of the opportunity witnesses should have led the jury to have reasonable doubt.
The current RC Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Revd Peter Comensoli, has said that the High Court decision has brought to an end “an intense and painful time for all those personally involved, those who have experienced abuse, and for the Catholic community in Melbourne”. He “valued and honoured” the right of the complainant to make his allegation; he also acknowledged that Cardinal Pell, who has always maintained his innocence, and “rightly”, “had been afforded the full possibilities of the judicial system”.
On Tuesday, the Vatican issued a statement in response to the court’s decision: “The Holy See, which has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority, welcomes the High Court’s unanimous decision concerning Cardinal George Pell, acquitting him of the accusations of abuse of minors and overturning his sentence.
“Entrusting his case to the court’s justice, Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence, and has waited for the truth to be ascertained.
“At the same time, the Holy See reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.”