Canberra: Cardinal George Pell was freed from prison on Tuesday after the High Court of Australia overturned his convictions for the sexual abuse of two boys in the 1990s.
The judges considered that 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”, according to the ruling obtained by Efe news.
It was Pell’s last legal avenue to have his convictions overturned and he said he held no “ill will”.
“I hold no ill will toward 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,” Pell said in a statement after the verdict.
“However 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,” he added.
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”
The 78-year-old cardinal was held in Barwon Prison, some 68 km south of the city of Melbourne, from which he was released at about 12.30 p.m. (local time).
The child sexual abuse case against the former Vatican treasurer, then number three in the Holy See, was based on the testimony of one of the two victims, who denounced him in 2014 after the other alleged victim died from a drug overdose.
Pell was convicted in 2018 of five counts of sexual abuse, including one of oral penetration, of the boys in 1996 and 1997 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
The decision was upheld by the Victorian Court of Appeal two to one, before his lawyers took his case to the High Court, arguing the appeals court failed to take proper account of evidence casting doubt on his guilt.
“The jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt,” said the court in its judgment on Tuesday.
After the verdict, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said “today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process”.
“We also recognise that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others. Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion,” it said, adding that “the result today does not change the Church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.”
Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews said he had no comment on the High Court’s decision, “but I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you”.