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CANBERRA, Australia, April 6, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – The High Court of Australia has acquitted Cardinal George Pell of his convictions of historic child sexual abuse and ordered his release from prison, in a unanimous descion by the court’s seven justices.
“I hold no ill will to my accuser,” Pell said in a statement. “I do not want my acquital to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel.”
— Shannon Deery (@s_deery) April 7, 2020
John Macauley, a former altar server at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, attended Pell’s trial and recent appeal hearing, and told LifeSiteNews that today’s decision “comes as great relief for those of us who believed the truth would eventually emerge.”
“The Cardinal voluntarily returned from Rome to clear his name, despite all the risks of coming before a jury pool tainted by decades of anti-Pell propaganda” Macauley said. “Every stage of this legal saga, going back five years, has been a black mark against our justice system, but that’s all been reversed today.”
In a statement Tuesday morning Australia time, the High Court announced:
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.
Pell, 78, has been in prison since February 2019 after a jury found him guilty of two counts of sexual assault against a child on December 11, 2018. He has always denied the charges, which hinge on the uncorroborated testimony of one person. Last year, the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld the guilty verdict.
The decision comes after Australia’s top court held two days of an appeal hearing last month, in which Pell’s prosecutors, led by Victorian director of public prosecutions Kerry Judd QC, shifted their position on key evidence relating to Pell’s alleged sexual assault of two choirboys after Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
The prosecution had previously argued that there was a five- to six-minute window of opportunity during private prayer time immediately after Mass for Pell to have committed the offenses. But last month, Judd changed her position, saying instead that it could not be stated for certain how long the private prayer time had lasted.
Several witnesses, including Church officials, testified that Pell — who had recently been appointed the archbishop of Melbourne at the time of the alleged offense — would never have been alone in the cathedral. Moreover, they say it was his invariable practice to greet churchgoers at the front doors of the building immediately after Mass ended. Pell’s defense has also pointed out that he would have been fully vested immediately after Mass, making the logistics of the alleged offenses highly improbable.
The charges were originally laid after an Australian police investigation, code-named “Operation Tethering,” actively sought evidence that Pell committed sex crimes, even though no complaint had been made against him. A number of men came forward with stories; all but one were dismissed.
Ultimately, only one man, known as “Witness J,” testified against Pell. The other former choir boy named in the charges died before the case came to trial, but before he died he told his mother that the abuse never took place.
News of the charges broke in 2017 when Pell was in Rome serving as the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy. Pell is believed by many to have been working to reform the Vatican's finances, including reportedly opposing a 50 million Euro loan to help the Vatican purchase a scandal-ridden hospital in Rome. In order to face the charges Pell voluntarily returned to Australia from Rome saying at the time: “I’m innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Pell was found guilty of two counts of child sex assault by a jury on December 11, 2018. Prior to his conviction, the jury deliberated for only four days.
In March 2019, Justice Peter Kidd sentenced Pell to six years in prison, with no chance of parole for three years and eight months. When first sentenced in March 2019 Judge Peter Kidd told Pell that he might die in jail.
“Facing jail at your age in these circumstances must be an awful state of affairs for you,” the judge said. You “may not live to be released from prison,” he said.
After his conviction, Pell applied for a hearing with the Court of Appeal in Melbourne, which eventually took place in June 2019.
It was reported that Pell’s defense team had made a positive impression on the three judges. However, on August 20, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction. It was a split decision, as Justice Mark Weinberg said he could not in good conscience refrain from dissenting.
Weinberg explained he was “quite unconvinced” by the evidence of the only person claiming to be a victim. He argued that it was not compelling enough to put aside all other factors suggesting that the alleged victim’s account was unreliable.
A report published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted Justice Weinberg as saying “the complainant ‘seemed almost to clutch at straws’ when he was questioned to minimize inconsistencies in the evidence.”
“Having had regard to the whole of the evidence led at trial, and having deliberated long and hard over this matter,” Weinberg declared, “I find myself in the position of having a genuine doubt” about Pell’s guilt.
“My doubt is a doubt which the jury ought also to have had,” he added.
Macauely told LifeSite that today’s High Court’s decision should not, in his opinion, be the end of the matter. “It is alarming that a man had to spend nearly 14 months in prison on the uncorroborated say-so of a single accuser, despite having multiple alibis. There is a need for both the police and the public prosecutor to respond to charges of malicious prosecution,” he said.