Legal turnaround in the last instance

Legal turnaround in the last instance

Cardinal George Pell in front of the court in Melbourne © Daniel Pockett/AAP

Acquittal for Cardinal George Pell: Australia's top court this Tuesday overturned the former Vatican economy minister's jail sentence on all five counts of sexual abuse.

The jury should have had doubts about the defendant's guilt based on the evidence, the unanimous decision of the seven judges published via Twitter said. Pell, who was sentenced to six years in early 2019, would be released from his prison near Melbourne later this Tuesday.

Great relief

Pell himself received the verdict with great relief. "I have always maintained my innocence while suffering a grave injustice," Pell said in an emailed statement. The case against him was not a referendum on the Catholic Church, nor was it a referendum on how the Australian church should deal with sexual abuse in the church.

"The ie was whether I committed these heinous crimes – which I did not," Pell wrote.

The verdict was delivered by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in a nearly empty High Court room in Brisbane. Because of the measures against the spread of the coronavirus, the public was excluded from the pronouncement of the verdict. The virus was also the reason for the closure of the High Court's official seat in Canberra and the transfer of the sentencing to Brisbane.

Accusation of sexual abuse of two choir boys

Pell had been sentenced to six years in prison in December 2018 on charges of sexually abusing two choirboys. The jury reached the guilty verdict based solely on the testimony of one of the alleged victims. In the summer of 2019, an appeals court upheld Pell's conviction by majority vote of two of the three judges.

The assault allegedly took place more than 20 years ago after a high mass in the sacristy of Melbourne Cathedral. However, according to exculpatory witnesses such as then-master of ceremonies Charles Portelli, the abuse was not possible in time or place.

It had been common practice for the then Archbishop of Melbourne to greet Massgoers on the steps of the cathedral after church services. In addition, after church services, the sacristy was bustling with priests and altar servers.

Civil lawsuits loom

After his prison term, Pell now faces additional, civil lawsuits for abuse of minors. Also, further criminal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice are possible in Pell's testimony before the state abuse committee.

Evidence for these accusations could be found in the two volumes of the final report of the state abuse commission, which will be released after the proceedings, which are now concluded.

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