MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia’s highest court on Tuesday overturned the sexual abuse conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic leader ever found guilty in the church’s clergy pedophilia crisis.
Cardinal Pell, 78, who was the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, was sentenced to six years in prison last March for molesting two 13-year-old boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.
He walked free on Tuesday after a panel of seven judges ruled that the jury ought to have entertained a doubt about his guilt. The judges cited “compounding improbabilities” to conclude that the verdicts on five counts reached in 2018 were “unreasonable or cannot be supported by the evidence.”
In a statement, Cardinal Pell reiterated his assertion that he had committed no crimes. “I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” he said. “This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.”
The verdict, handed down by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of social distancing measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, shocked Catholics in Australia and around the world.
Cardinal Pell had receded from the public mind during his time in prison, and with the exception of his die-hard supporters, most Australians had come to accept his guilt as an established fact.
His case had dragged on for years. His first trial ended with a hung jury; his second carried on with a heavy shroud of secrecy as suppression orders limited what could be reported or even scrutinized.
The testimony of the case’s most important witness, a former choirboy who had stepped forward with his claims in 2015, was never made public, not even in transcripts. Legal experts said that made it difficult for the public to comprehend the complexity of the case, as well as the High Court’s ultimate ruling.
“Most of us didn’t know any of the details, and none of us have seen the complainant’s testimony,” said Jeremy Gans, a Melbourne Law School professor who has been closely following the case.
The cardinal had been convicted on counts related to two separate incidents when he was the archbishop of Melbourne, making him the first bishop to be found guilty in a criminal court for sexually abusing minors, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
The six-year sentence, which fell far short of the 50-year maximum, was closely scrutinized, but held up on its initial appeal, which was based in part on Cardinal Pell’s contention that there was not sufficient evidence to support the convictions.
In its judgment on Tuesday, the High Court found that for all five charges, there were many improbabilities that had not been fully considered by the jury. There is “a significant possibility,” the judges wrote in summarizing the case, “that an innocent person has been convicted.”
The problems started, the decision suggested, with the single accuser. Because a second complainant had died before a trial began, the case was “wholly dependent upon the acceptance of the truthfulness and the reliability” of one man’s testimony, the judges wrote.
While the jury found him credible, along with a majority of judges in the Court of Appeal, the High Court sided with a dissenting appeals court judge. That judge said that the jury ought to have had a reasonable doubt about Cardinal Pell’s guilt based on testimony from other witnesses who argued that the events described by the accuser did not match the cardinal’s regular Sunday routine.
There were other allegations that were not part of the case. In February 2019, a second trial in which Cardinal Pell was accused of touching boys in a swimming pool in Ballarat was canceled because of legal setbacks.
Karen Monument, the sister of one of the men in that case, said her brother and the family were “devastated” that Cardinal Pell would now walk free.
“We sincerely hope that today’s decision by the court of Australia does not become a deterrent to survivor victims. It is more important than ever that they continue to speak their truth and hold to account both perpetrators and institutions,” the Monument family said in a statement released via Facebook.
Phil Nagle, an advocate for abuse victims from Ballarat, Cardinal Pell’s hometown, said that he and others were shocked by the judgment, which engendered further distrust of a court system that they feel has failed to bring many abusers to justice.
We “don’t know what to believe anymore,” Mr. Nagle said, adding that he remained hopeful that further allegations against Cardinal Pell would come to light, and that he ultimately would be brought to trial again.
“The journey is a long way from being over for Cardinal Pell,” he said.
Last week, two other men came forward accusing Cardinal Pell of abusing them in Ballarat during his time as a priest in that diocese.
Rosemary O’Grady, a retired lawyer who took detailed notes at the trials on behalf of several victims’ groups, said that the judgment showed the need for abuse survivors to have their own representation in the courtroom.
“The crown case was so abysmal,” Ms. O’Grady said of the prosecution’s case. “There were times when I was walking up and down with steam coming out my nostrils,” she said, adding that the release of Cardinal Pell represented “a bad day for democracy.”
Livia Albeck-Ripka reported from Melbourne, Australia, and Damien Cave from Sydney.