The court unanimously found Pell’s conviction for child sex abuse should be overturned.
“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 full bench of seven judges said in their judgment, handed down in Brisbane, on Tuesday.
Cardinal Pell will be released from Barwon Prison, near Geelong. He has spent more than 400 days behind bars.
He released a statement shortly after the decision, declaring the serious injustice he has suffered had been remedied.
“I hold no ill will to my accused, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” he said.
Cardinal Pell said his trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church or how Australian church authorities dealt with pedophilia.
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he said.
He thanked supporters for praying for him and sending 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 advisors; 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.”
In December 2018, a jury found Cardinal Pell guilty of five charges, accepting evidence of one complainant that the then-Archbishop of Melbourne had sexually abused him and another 13-year-old choirboy at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.
One of the choirboys died in 2014, prompting the other to bring the allegations to police.
In an initial trial, a jury was unable to reach a verdict. The second jury was unanimous in its decision.
An appeal to Victoria’s Court of Appeal last year was unsuccessful.
Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence, a fact noted in the High Court’s 26-page decision.
He told Victoria Police officers in Rome in 2016 that the most rudimentary interviews with staff and choirboys would tell them the allegations were “fundamentally improbable” and “most certainly false”.
The High Court found the Victorian Court of Appeal majority – Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and President Chris Maxwell – had failed to engage with the idea that against a body of evidence, the complainant’s account was not correct.
They put aside the likelihood of two robed choirboys slipping away from the procession without being detected, as well as their ability to find altar wine in an unlocked cupboard and for Cardinal Pell to expose his penis through his ornamental robes.
Instead, they focused on the evidence that placed Cardinal Pell at the front of the cathedral for at least 10 minutes after Sunday Masses in December 1996.
They pointed to the fact Cardinal Pell was in the company of Monsignor Charles Portelli when he returned to the priest’s sacristy to remove his vestments and there was continuous traffic in and out of the sacristy for up to 10 minutes after the altar servers completed their bows to the crucifix.
A fifth conviction relating to a second alleged incident, in which the surviving choirboy claimed he was molested by Cardinal Pell in a corridor, was also quashed.
“The assumption that a group of choristers, including adults, might have been so preoccupied with making their way to the robing room as to fail to notice the extraordinary sight of the Archbishop of Melbourne dressed ‘in his full regalia’ advancing through the procession and pinning a 13-year-old boy to the wall, is a large one,” they said.
“The capacity of the evidence to support the verdict on this charge suffers from the same deficiency as the evidence of the assaults involved in the first incident.”
Australia’s Catholic bishops say Pell’s acquittal will be devastating for many people, but welcomed by those who believe in his innocence.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the result did not change the church’s commitment to child safety.
“Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“We also recognise that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others.
“Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion.”
Archbishop Coleridge said anyone with allegations of sexual abuse by church personnel should go to the police.
“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,” he said.
Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous said the High Court’s decision vindicated Cardinal Pell’s consistent claims that he was not guilty.
“I am grateful for the professional and exacting legal review of the convictions by the High Court,” Archbishop Porteous said.
“The Catholic Church in Tasmania remains committed to seeking justice for the survivors of abuse and their families, and prays for healing for all who have suffered,” he said.
Ballarat Bishop Paul Bird said the case had divided opinions in legal circles and the general community, and particularly in his diocese because of Cardinal Pell’s early connections there.
“Now that the highest court in the land has given a judgement, I hope this will bring some sense of resolution to all those affected by the proceedings,” Bishop Bird said on Tuesday.
Bishop Bird said the High Court decision ended many months of uncertainty.
“The whole process of trials and appeals has been distressing, most immediately for those directly involved in the court proceedings but also for others in the community, including victims and survivors of abuse and their families.”
Child sexual abuse survivors will be devastated by the outcome, advocates say.
Some abuse victims may now be reluctant to come forward, they warned.
Blue Knot Foundation president Cathy Kezelman described the decision to release Cardinal Pell as absolutely devastating.
“For many survivors, this decision will be crushing as the immense courage it takes to stand up and be seen and heard is enormous,” Dr Kezelman said.
“Pell now has his freedom, but many abuse victims have never been free – trapped in the horror of the crimes which decimated their lives.”
Victim advocate Chrissie Foster, whose now-deceased daughters were abused by a pedophile priest, also said the court’s decision was devastating.
“It’s tragic because it says to victims don’t bother coming forward,” she told 3AW.
“I can imagine George Pell going back to the Vatican and staying there.”
Slater and Gordon lawyer Nick Hart said some abuse survivors who had stayed silent may be deterred from coming forward.
“It’s a sad fact that with his sex abuse convictions being overturned today by the High Court, many abuse victims would continue suffering in silence and may lose hope that they will ever be believed,” Hart said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the day was very challenging for people who were sexually abused by clergy.
“I make no comment about today’s High Court decision,” he said.
“But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”
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