Cardinal George Pell released from prison after high court quashes convictions

Cardinal Pell leaves prison in Geelong, Australia. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

AAP Report/Karen Sweeney: Cardinal George Pell is a free man after Australia’s highest court quashed five convictions for child sexual abuse.

In a unanimous decision all seven High Court justices said Cardinal Pell should be acquitted.

He was driven from Barwon Prison, near Geelong, just before 12.30pm on Tuesday.

Roads were closed to allow the cardinal’s convoy to make his way to the Carmelite Monastery in Kew, in east Melbourne.

Katrina Lee, a Catholic Church spokeswoman who supported Cardinal Pell in court, would not comment on whether his long-term plans include a return to the Vatican.

The timing of the decision is significant, coming in Holy Week – the most significant week on the Christian calendar, marking the end of Lent and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday this weekend.

Cardinal Pell did not stop to speak as he left the prison and instead issued a statement saying the serious injustice he has suffered had been remedied by the court’s findings.

“I hold no ill will to 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.

Cardinal Pell said his trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church or how Australian church authorities dealt with pedophilia.

“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he said.

Cardinal Pell was charged by Victoria Police officers after a man came forward in 2014 alleging he and another choirboy had been sexually abused at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.

That boy, now in his 30s, gave evidence in court, revealing he felt compelled to come forward after the death of the other boy.

A jury convicted Cardinal Pell of five charges in December 2018 after an earlier jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Victoria’s Court of Appeal upheld the convictions last year.

With coronavirus sending Queensland into lockdown, the forecourt and road outside the High Court in Brisbane were empty for the handing down of the decision.

Only three journalists were allowed in the courtroom as Chief Justice Susan Kiefel handed down the decision.

“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,” the full bench of seven judges said in their judgment.

Unlike the decision in Victoria’s Court of Appeal last year, the judgment was not live streamed.

Instead the High Court posted the judgment online and tweeted the news to the world.

The father of the choirboy who died in 2014 was shocked by the court’s decision and his lawyer Lisa Flynn said in a statement he was heartbroken for the surviving boy.

“Our client says this man, who the jury believed, is an upstanding citizen who had nothing to gain from speaking out other than to protect other children from the pain and suffering he has to live with on a daily basis,” Ms Flynn said.

The father will continue to pursue a civil case against Cardinal Pell.

Lawyers for the surviving complainant are expected to speak on Wednesday.

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Mark Coleridge, said the acquittal would be devastating for some, but welcomed by those who believe Cardinal Pell’s innocence.

“The result today does not change the church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse,” he said.

Victoria Police in a statement acknowledged the work of its Taskforce Sano investigators and reiterated the commitment to investigating sexual assault offences no matter how many years had passed.

Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions declined to comment.