The High Court of Australia has freed Catholic Cardinal George Pell from jail, after overturning his conviction for child sex abuse.
Before being convicted, Pell was the Vatican’s treasurer and one of the pope’s top advisors. He was also the church’s most senior figure in Australia.
But in 2018, a jury found he abused two boys in Melbourne in the 1990s. The court jailed him for six years.
However, the High Court of Australia has now quashed that verdict.
The 78-year-old has maintained his innocence ever since the police charged him in June 2017.
George Pell’s homophobic record
George Pell became Cardinal of Australia in 2014. He spoke out frequently against LGBT+ rights and same-sex marriage.
Pell was one of the leading figures fighting against same-sex marriage in Australia. However, the Australian public voted to approve marriage equality in a hugely divisive public vote in 2017.
In 2015, he also criticized Ireland’s vote for marriage equality. What’s more, he spoke out against the US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
As an Archbishop in 2012, in submissions to the Australian Senate on the issue of marriage equality, Pell wrote that opposite-sex marriage was sacrosanct.
He said homosexual couples may have ‘genuine caring, affection and commitment’ but could not create children.
Why has Pell had his conviction overturned?
Pell had previously appealed to a lower court last year, but they upheld his conviction.
But this time, a full bench of seven High Court judges ruled unanimously in Cardinal Pell’s favour. They concluded the jury had not properly considered all the evidence at the original trial.
The jury in December 2018 had found him guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys. The court heard the abuse happened in private rooms of St Patrick’s Cathedral in the mid-90s – when the cleric was Archbishop of Melbourne.
The jury in 2018 heard from a man who was the only surviving victim. But dozens of other witnesses provided alibis and other evidence.
They convicted him of one count of sexual penetration and four counts of committing indecent acts.
In the new High Court case, the cardinal’s lawyers argued that the jury, and previous appeal judges, had relied too heavily on the ‘compelling’ evidence of the alleged victim.
They didn’t seek to discredit that testimony. But they argued the jury had not properly considered other evidence.
The High Court agreed, ruling that other testimonies had introduced ‘a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place’.
Relief for Vatican
Now Pell says the injustice against him has been ‘remedied’ and that he has ‘no ill will to my accuser’.
The High Court’s decision will definitely be a relief for The Vatican. Pell was the most senior Catholic convicted of child sex offenses so far. In response, Pope Francis has dedicated his morning mass to those suffering unjust sentences, although he did not name Pell.
Francis had refrained from stripping George Pell of his clerical titles while the cardinal still had the opportunity to appeal.
But it is not yet clear if Francis will have him back as Vatican treasurer.