One of the most senior members of the Catholic Church has walked free from prison after the Australian high court decided to quash his child sex abuse conviction.
Cardinal Pell, 78, who has always maintained his innocence, has spent just over a year in prison after he was previously found guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s Patrick Cathedral in 1996, while he was the city’s archbishop.
The senior catholic had also been found guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in 1997, and was sentenced to six years in prison.
The high court decided on Tuesday that the Victorian Court of Appeal had been wrong in its two-to-one decision to uphold previous jury verdicts in August, after Mr Pell was granted an appeal against the conviction in November.
In a statement, Mr Pell, who was also Pope Francis’ former finance minister, said: “I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.
“I hold no ill will toward my accuser. 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.”
The two-day appeal focused on whether the jury could have had reasonable doubt about Mr Pell’s guilt, specifically around whether he would have had time to molest the boys in the five or six minutes immediately following a mass service, when practice dictates that he would have been accompanied and talking to the congregation.
His lawyers argued that the prosecution at his trial and appeal hearing should have proved that Mr Pell standing alone while in his robes and not talking to anyone was possible, in order to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
“That… is a grotesque version of the reversal of onus of proof, if all the Crown has to do is to prove the possibility of something,” he said.
The high court statement said: “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 (Pell’s) guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted.”
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