Vatican welcomes Cardinal George Pell acquittal by Australian top court

The Vatican on Tuesday welcomed Cardinal George Pell's acquittal by Australia's highest court on charges of sexual abuse, praising him for having "waited for the truth to be ascertained."

Decision overturns 6-year prison sentence

George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Oct. 6, 2017. On Tuesday, Australia's highest court overturned the former Vatican treasurer's conviction, allowing him to be freed from custody immediately. (Mark Dadswell/Reuters)

The Vatican on Tuesday welcomed Cardinal George Pell's acquittal by Australia's highest court on charges of sexual abuse, praising him for having "waited for the truth to be ascertained."

In its first official reaction, a statement said the Vatican had always had confidence in Australian judicial authorities and reaffirmed the Holy See's "commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors."

Pope Francis appeared to refer to Pell's acquittal in his morning homily, saying he was praying for all those unjustly persecuted.

The Australian High Court quashed convictions that Pell sexually assaulted two teenaged choir boys in the 1990s and allowed the 78-year-old former Vatican economy minister to walk free from jail, ending the most high-profile case of alleged historical sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic Church.

The seven judges of the court agreed unanimously that the jury in the cardinal's trial "ought to have entertained a doubt" as to his guilt. Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the lengthy court process, cannot be retried on the charges.

"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," Pell said in a statement shortly before he was driven away from the maximum security Barwon Prison near Melbourne.

Protesters of Cardinal George Pell are seen outside the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, March 13, 2019. ( AAP Image/Daniel Pockett/Reuters)

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it was "dismayed and heartbroken" by the outcome.

"This is a disappointing ruling that only exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel," SNAP Australia said in a statement.

Pell, a polarizing figure in Australia for his conservative views, remained a cardinal but lost his treasurer role last year when he became the highest ranked Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.

Pell was serving a six-year sentence on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of an indecent act with a child under 16, which the plaintiff said took place when Pell was archbishop of the city of Melbourne.

Pell's first trial ended in a hung jury, before the jury in a second trial unanimously found him guilty in 2018. Pell did not take the stand at either trial.

A lower appeal court had upheld Pell's conviction, but the High Court found it had failed to consider evidence that should have raised doubt that he was guilty.

The High Court cited precedent from an unrelated case that "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."

Pell's accuser, one of two boys the archbishop was alleged to have assaulted, had said the offences took place shortly after Sunday masses, in the priests' sacristy and corridor of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, while Pell was robed.

The High Court judges pointed to unchallenged evidence from church officials at Pell's trial that he typically spent time talking to congregants on the church steps after mass, he was always accompanied by a priest while robed, and the sacristy was usually a hive of activity after mass.

'Furious' and 'heartbroken'

The second alleged victim in the case died in 2014 of a drug overdose. His father, who is pursuing a civil case against Pell, said through his lawyer Lisa Flynn that he was "in shock" and "furious" that a conviction by a unanimous jury had been overturned.

"Our client says he is heartbroken for [his son's friend] who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story," Flynn of Shine Lawyers said.

Vivian Waller, a lawyer for the accuser, said her client would make a statement on Wednesday.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the acquittal would be welcomed by many and "devastating for others."

With files from The Associated Press