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Cardinal George Pell guilty child sexual abuse catholic church
(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, will walk free after the High Court unanimously acquitted him of a child sex abuse conviction this morning.

In a dramatic decision that brings to an end one of the most high-profile criminal cases Australia has ever seen, the nation’s top court held that the jury in Pell’s trial, held in late 2018, “ought to have retained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences”.

“It is evident 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’,” the court’s judgment said. 

Pell was originally convicted of sexual penetration of a child under 16, and four counts of indecent an indecent act with a child under the age of 16, relating to an allegation he sexually abused two choir boys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne after mass in the 1990s.

Last year, the Victorian Court of Appeal, in a 2:1 decision, upheld the jury verdict. Last month, Pell’s legal team team, led by high-profile Sydney barrister Bret Walker SC, argued that jurors in the original criminal trial should have had reasonable doubt about whether the cardinal committed the alleged acts. 

The High Court accepted Walker’s arguments, ruling that even if jurors found Pell’s accuser credible, they ought to have still entertained doubt as to his guilt, especially in light of unchallenged evidence of opportunity witnesses that were inconsistent with his account. 

But despite all the interest in the Pell case, and its place as a momentous episode in Australian legal history, the saga ended with something of a whimper. Thanks to travel restrictions and social distancing rules, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel delivered the judgment before an almost-empty court in Brisbane, more evidence of how every facet of life has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just three observers were allowed inside, with another handful waiting at the door. Gone were the media scrums, the public galleries, the protesters and supporters that had  been a feature of Pell’s earlier trial. Pell wasn’t in the courtroom either, and waited at Barwon Prison — where he’s been jailed for the past 405 days — for his lawyers to read him the news. 

After today’s judgment, he won’t be spending another night there. Yet even with the acquittal, Pell’s reputation remains tainted to all but his most ardent defenders. For years, he was the subject of fierce criticism over his handling of systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. 

And just last week, the ABC reported that two new accusers alleged Pell had abused them when they were young boys in Ballarat in the 1970s. Pell’s marathon trial may be over. But the Catholic Church’s deep institutional problem with child sex abuse will never go away.

In response to the decision, many raised fears that the judgment could bring a lot of pain for survivors of sexual abuse. 

In a statement, Pell said he bore no ill will toward his accuser, adding that the trial was not “a referendum on the Catholic Church.”

He also praised his lawyers for their “unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.”

But for Pell’s saunchest defenders, the court provided vindication.

Responding to the news, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said the decision “means the cardinal was wrongly convicted and imprisoned, and he is now free to live his life peaceably within the community.”

News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, one of Pell’s greatest supporters, saw the decision as evidence of the cardinal’s innocence. He’ll have the first interview with Pell today, on Sky News.

Update: This article has been updated to include George Pell’s statement

Peter Fray

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