After 400 days in prison, former Vatican finance minister is free. On formal grounds, Australia's High Court overturned the jail sentence against Cardinal George Pell. But the 78-year-old is facing new troubles.
Cardinal George Pell is a free man. Australia's Supreme Court overturned his jail sentence for sexual abuse Tuesday in Brisbane. The jury should have had doubts about his guilt based on the evidence, they reasoned.
Immediately after the High Court decision, which was met with controversy by Australia's public, the 78-year-old was released from prison and taken to a Melbourne convent. Earlier, the former Vatican finance chief said via email that he has always maintained his innocence. Justice has now been served and he holds "no grudge" against the man who accused him.
Australian bishops' conference reacts diplomatically
The reaction of the Australian Bishops' Conference was diplomatic. "Today's outcome will be welcomed by many, especially those who have believed in the cardinal's innocence throughout the protracted proceedings," Archbishop Mark Coleridge, presiding, said in a press statement. "But we also know that the High Court's decision is devastating for others."
Anthony Fisher, Pell's successor as Archbishop of Sydney and the cardinal's sophomore, allowed himself to be heard more triumphantly. "This was not only a trial of Cardinal Pell, but of our legal system and our culture," Fisher declared. Pell's rehabilitation invites "broader reflection on our justice system, our commitment to the presumption of innocence and our treatment of high-profile individuals accused of crimes".
Many legal experts greeted the High Court's decision with astonishment. Until now, it has been very rare for the High Court to overturn a jury's guilty verdict in abuse trials.
"This appeal to the High Court was not about whether Pell had committed the offences. The ie was whether the majority of the (three) judges of the Melbourne Court of Appeal erred as to the nature of the correct legal principles or their application in dismissing Pell's appeal," Ben Mathews, a law professor at the Queensland University of Technology, wrote in an initial expert analysis. It appeared just an hour after the High Court decision under the title "How Pell won today on a legal technicality".
"The Supreme Court has given claims of a lack of opportunity [to commit the crime] a higher technical legal status," writes those familiar with the "Pell case" for the independent journalistic-academic analysis platform The Conversation. That legal status weighed more heavily than the jury's belief in the plaintiff's testimony, Mathews said. Pell's "claimed lack of opportunity" was apparently held in low esteem by the jury.
Respected jurist Andrew Dyer told the Catholic News Agency (KNA), "As convincing as the former choirboy's testimony was, it was not supported (by evidence) in the High Court's view."
In 2002, an internal Melbourne Archdiocese investigation into abuse allegations against Pell had also ended with a black eye for the accused. The parallel to today: at that time, too, the plaintiff's testimony was considered credible; however, the evidence was not sufficient for a conviction.
Further proceedings likely
Pell, who has been in poor health, will be able to recover from his 400 days in detention during Holy Week and Easter. After that, it should become uncomfortable for him again. There are other civil actions pending against him in Melbourne for the abuse of juveniles. Whereas in criminal trials a defendant's guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, in civil trials plausibility is sufficient for conviction.
In addition, criminal proceedings are likely against Pell on suspicion of obstruction of justice in his testimony before the state abuse committee. Evidence could be found in the two volumes of the commission's final report, which will be released after the trial is now over.