Updated at 4:45 a.m. ET Tuesday
Australia’s High Court has found reasonable doubt that Cardinal George Pell sexually assaulted two boys in the 1990s and has overturned his conviction.
The court acquitted the former Vatican treasurer of the charges, and no retrial will be possible. The High Court ordered that he be released.
Pell, 78, had been serving a six-year prison sentence in the case after he was convicted in December 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
As an adult, one of his them went to the police in 2015 and accused the cardinal of abusing him and the other boy in 1996. The other individual died of a heroin overdose the previous year without reporting abuse.
Pell’s conviction wasn’t made public until Feb. 2019 and in August, the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld those convictions. An earlier trial in 2018 resulted in a deadlocked jury.
Pell didn’t testify at either trial or at his subsequent appeals, but he did forcefully maintain his innocence in a police interview video in 2016 that was shown to jurors. In it, he called the allegations against him “vile and disgusting” and “contrary to everything I hold dear and contrary to the explicit teachings of the church which I have spent my life representing.”
He was originally ordered to serve three years and eight months before being eligible for parole.
In a statement after the acquittal, as reported by Reuters, Pell said, “I hold no ill will toward 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.”
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s comments on the acquittal recognize that the outcome will be good news for some people and “devastating for others.”
“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,” the conference said. “The safety of children remains supremely important not only for the bishops, but for the entire Catholic community. Any person with allegations of sexual abuse by Church personnel should go to the police.”
The Vatican offered no immediate response to the court’s decision, but Pope Francis on Tuesday offered his morning Mass for those who suffer from unjust sentences.
“I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence (against them),” the pope said, speaking before the start of the Mass. He did not mentioning Pell by name.
The Vatican had been conducting its own investigation of Pell. However, after Australian appellate court’s decision in August to uphold his conviction, the Vatican said in a statement that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which was conducting the investigation, would await a decision on his final appeal.
The official Vatican News website, in its report on the decision in Australia, noted that Pell had steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Pell was selected in 2014 by Francis to run the Vatican’s new economic ministry — in effect the Church’s chief financial officer — but was removed from Francis’ Council of Cardinals after his conviction.