Melbourne: Australia's most senior Catholic Cardinal George Pell on Tuesday walked out of prison after the country's highest court unanimously acquitted him of child sex offences, overturning a lower court's judgement against the 78-year-old former Vatican treasurer.
Once the Vatican's third-ranking official, Pell was released from Barwon Prison outside Melbourne and reached a church after serving 13 months of a six-year sentence. He was driven from the prison in a convoy.
Pell was sentenced in March last year to six years in prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.
The High Court ruled in its judgement that there is a "significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof".
Pell was Vatican Treasurer and the highest ranking Catholic official to ever be publicly accused of child sex offenses.
The court released a statement explaining the decision which renders Pell's earlier convictions of sexually abusing two choir boys in the 1990s null and void.
"Today, the High Court granted special leave to appeal against a decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria and unanimously allowed the appeal.
"The High Court found 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, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place," the court wrote.
Pell, the former top aide of Pope Francis, said in a statement: ''I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice".
"This has been remedied today, with the High Court's unanimous decision. I look forward to reading the judgment and reasons for the decision in detail.
"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," he said.
The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all, Pell said.
"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. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not," he said.
In 2018, a jury found Pell guilty of five charges accepting evidence of one complainant that the Cardinal had sexually abused him and another 13-year-old choirboy at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.
The full bench of seven judges on Tuesday revealed that the jury should have had reasonable doubt as to Pell's guilt. It granted his application for special leave and unanimously acquitted him.
In 2005, Pell became a Companion of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the Catholic Church.
Reacting to the verdict, a leading advocate for victims of sexual assault Chrissie Foster described the High Court decision as shocking and pinpointed that it might deter people reporting allegations of sex crimes to police.
"I'm just devastated. It's a real shock. I had hoped this wouldn't happen, and I'm really devastated that he (Cardinal Pell) is going to walk (free)," she said.
"It's a waste of time. Is this setting a precedent? Maybe it will make accusers more determined. but these are damaged people. For them to get up and fight, it's not as easy for them as it is for you and I. They are going to shy away from it.
"This man (Cardinal Pell's accuser) went to the police and gave evidence and he (the cardinal) was found guilty and now this is the result. He is left with nothing and (Cardinal Pell) walks free," she said.
Foster said she felt for the accuser and his family.
According to ABC news, the father of the late former choirboy was "in shock" as per his lawyers who said:"He is struggling to comprehend the decision by the High Court of Australia".
Shine Lawyers national practice leader Lisa Flynn said in a statement that "he says he no longer has faith in our country's criminal justice system. Our client says he is heartbroken for the surviving victim who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story but was ultimately let down by a legal process that forced him to relive his pain and trauma for no benefit".
The decision invoked reactions from political leaders as well with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying the court's decision is one which "must be respected".
"The High Court has made its decision and I know for many Australians the memory of things - completely unrelated to that case which has now been addressed by the High Court - just the mere discussion of these topics brings back great hurt and when these things are raised my thoughts are always with them.
"The High Court, the highest court in the land, has made its decision and it must be respected," Morrison said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he had no comment on the High Court ruling.
"But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you," he said.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard said: "recovery from sexual abuse in childhood can be complex and can take time. For many people, particularly those who have experienced trauma, today's news may bring a range of emotions. It's important to know that support is available". PTI NC AD