Cardinal George Pell freed from prison after High Court quashes child sex abuse convictions
By Kate McKenna, Sarah Farnsworth, staff and wires
Cardinal George Pell has been driven from prison to a church property in Melbourne’s inner east after the nation’s highest court quashed his child sexual abuse convictions.
- The High Court of Australia granted Cardinal Pell’s application for special leave and unanimously acquitted him
- The judges found that given the evidence, the jury ought to have entertained a doubt as to Cardinal Pell’s guilt
- In a statement, Cardinal Pell said the High Court’s decision had remedied a “serious injustice”
The unanimous decision has been handed down less than a month after the High Court of Australia heard two days of intense legal arguments from the Cardinal’s lawyers and Victorian prosecutors.
Shortly before 12:30pm, Cardinal Pell was freed from Barwon Prison, leaving in a convoy of cars headed by a white Mercedes.
He was then taken to a church property in Melbourne’s inner east, where a nun greeted him at the door and helped him inside. Cardinal Pell, 78, who has consistently maintained his innocence, was serving a six-year jail sentence after he was convicted in 2018 of abusing two choirboys in the 1990s, while he was the archbishop of Melbourne. He had been accused of committing the crimes after he found the boys swigging altar wine in the priests’ sacristy after Mass in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.
A jury convicted him in 2018 — a decision that the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld in a two-to-one decision.
But his lawyers went to the High Court, arguing the appeal court failed to take proper account of evidence that cast doubt on his guilt.
Today the High Court handed down its decision, granting Cardinal Pell’s application for special leave and unanimously acquitting him.
In a morning Mass in Italy just hours after the High Court ruling, Pope Francis invited the congregation to pray for “all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence [against them]”.
Each morning at the Mass in his residence, the Pope chooses an intention for the service, such as remembering the poor, the homeless or the sick.
In recent weeks, the Pope’s intentions have been largely focused on the coronavirus pandemic.
While not mentioning Cardinal Pell by name, the Catholic Church’s leader drew a comparison between those suffering unjust persecution and Jesus on social media.
In a statement released shortly after the decision was delivered, Cardinal Pell said he held “no ill will” towards his accuser:
I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.
This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.
I look forward to reading the judgment and reasons for the decision in detail.
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.
However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church.
The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.
The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.
A special thanks for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support.
I want to thank in particular my family for their love and support and what they had to go through; my small team of advisers; those who spoke up for me and suffered as a result; and all my friends and supporters here and overseas.
Also my deepest thanks and gratitude to my entire legal team for their unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.
Finally, I am aware of the current health crisis. I am praying for all those affected and our medical frontline personnel.
Cardinal George Pell
In its summary, the High Court stated the Victorian Court of Appeal judges “failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place”.
The court found that other witnesses’ evidence was “inconsistent with the complainant’s account” and described how George Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, would greet parishioners on the cathedral steps, for up to 15 minutes after mass.
The full bench’s ruling was handed down by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in an almost empty High Court registry in Brisbane, due to physical-distancing measures introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The public gallery, which can seat up to 16 people, only contained three journalists to hear Chief Justice Kiefel deliver the ruling at 10:00am.
“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted,” the summary read.
As a result, the summary said there was the possibility that an innocent person had been convicted “because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.
Family of former choirboy ‘heartbroken’ by ruling
One of the former choirboys Cardinal Pell was accused of abusing died in 2014, while the other gave evidence during the trial.
The father of the late former choirboy was “in shock” in the wake of the decision, his lawyers said.
“He is struggling to comprehend the decision by the High Court of Australia,” Shine Lawyers national practice leader Lisa Flynn said in a statement.
“He says he no longer has faith in our country’s criminal justice system.”
“Our client says he is heartbroken for the surviving victim who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story but was ultimately let down by a legal process that forced him to relive his pain and trauma for no benefit.”
“We would also like to acknowledge the thorough work on this case by Taskforce Sano investigators over many years.”
Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli said he had two reactions when he heard news of the decision.
“I had a reaction of relief for the Cardinal but an immediate concern for J [the complainant who gave evidence], because he has gone through this journey offering his story and wanting to be able to be heard,” Archbishop Comensoli said.
“I am particularly mindful of those who are struggling with the experience of being abused and wanting to find pathways to healing and justice.
“My mind has been particularly with J and how this will be affecting him in this time.”
When asked if was surprised by the decision, Archbishop Comensoli said he had always believed in Cardinal Pell’s innocence.
“My own sense was that I had my own understanding of the man and my knowledge of him so when he said he was innocent, I accepted that,” he said.
“But I also accepted the processes of our courts and that has come to its conclusion.”
Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher said in a statement the result should invite a reflection on Australia’s justice system and the community’s commitment to the presumption of innocence.
“I am pleased that the Cardinal will now be released and I ask that the pursuit of him that brought us to this point now cease,” Archbishop Fisher said.
When asked about the ruling during a press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison extended his sympathies to abuse survivors who found coverage of the case upsetting.
“But the High Court, the highest court in the land, has made its decision and that must be respected,” he said.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott, who supported Cardinal Pell throughout the legal process including visiting him in prison, spoke briefly to reporters at his Sydney home after the ruling.
“That’s as it’s been and as it will be, but today’s just a day to let the High Court judgment speak for itself,” Mr Abbott said.
Abuse survivors struggling with decision encouraged to seek support
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he had no comment on the High Court ruling.
“But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you,” he said.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who is now the chair of not-for-profit mental health organisation Beyond Blue, encouraged those struggling with today’s news to seek support.
Foundation president Cathy Kezelman said the service had put on extra staff to handle the increase.
“Our helpline has been inundated by survivors who are experiencing, rage, fury, disgust, distress,” she said.
“[They are] completely overwhelmed with incredibly strong emotions and not knowing what to do.”
Dr Kezelman said it was particularly important that abuse survivors remained as connected as possible despite the physical-distancing measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s very important that people can speak to someone so that they’ll be seen, heard, listened to and believed, because validation is absolutely the bottom line,” she said.
Redacted royal commission findings to be made public
Today’s decision marks the end of the legal case against Cardinal Pell, and clears the path for the public release of until-now unpublished findings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
While the final report was handed down in 2017, about 60 pages detailing the commission’s findings regarding Cardinal Pell and his evidence were heavily redacted.
What he may have known about paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale and other priests’ offending was scrutinised by the commission.
The Cardinal voluntarily gave evidence from Rome.
Cardinal Pell was also questioned about the Catholic Church’s hardline approach to sexual abuse cases, during his time as archbishop of Sydney.
Now all avenues of appeal are over, the Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said he would work with state counterparts in coming weeks to release more of the report.
“It does require some liaison between my office and Victorian authorities, investigative and prosecutorial, to make sure that further tabling with less redaction would not prejudice any future investigations of a number of types,” he said.
“That could take a number of weeks.
“But my strong preference is to have as much of the information that has been redacted tabled with less redaction.”
‘People want answers’
Steve Blacker was raped as a nine year-old by Gerald Ridsdale, when Ridsdale was parish priest at St Colman’s Parish in Mortlake in 1982.
Mr Blacker was awarded a settlement of more than $1 million in a landmark legal case last year, after he sued Ballarat’s Catholic diocese for breaching its duty of care.
The royal commission established that the diocese was well aware of Ridsdale’s record of offending against children, years before he was posted to Mortlake.
But much of the detail around the decision-making of its leadership has been blacked out so as not to prejudice Cardinal Pell’s legal proceedings.
“People want answers,” said Mr Blacker, “and they want reasons and they want to know why.”
“This is like putting a massive jigsaw puzzle together, and there’s a lot of us still working on it.
“Just because you think it’s finished, it doesn’t go away.”
Mr Blacker said the matter was becoming increasingly urgent for survivors of child sexual abuse.
“People are dying and taking their own lives,” he said.
“So every day that that report remains redacted is a day that someone will potentially continue to suffer unnecessarily.”