George Pell was jailed for sexually abusing boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Picture: Erik Anderson.
George Pell was jailed for sexually abusing boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Picture: Erik Anderson.

Pell speaks after convictions overturned

George Pell has been sensationally acquitted of all charges and is set to be released from prison.

Pell, 78, has spent 404 days behind bars after being found guilty of abusing two choirboys at St Patrick's Cathedral in the 1990s.

But the High Court today ruled the jury's verdicts, on four counts of indecent assault and one of sexual penetration of a child, were unsafe.

Pell responded to the decision, as he prepares to be released from prison today.

"I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice," he said.

"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 to 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."

Cardinal Pell took his fight to the High Court after the Victorian Court of Appeal dismissed an earlier appeal in a majority ruling.

In its unanimous decision the High Court said the majority of Victoria's Court of Appeal who dismissed Pell's first appeal "failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant's guilt".

The court found unchallenged evidence of opportunity witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant's evidence.

It meant despite what the jury made of the complainant's evidence, the unchallenged evidence meant the jury must have had a reasonable doubt.

George Pell and Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney. Picture: Getty Images
George Pell and Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney. Picture: Getty Images

He relied on two grounds of appeal, centred on the argument that the jury that convicted had no right to do so in light of all of the evidence at trial.

Prosecutors have maintained that not only was the offending not impossible, the jury was entitled to its verdict based on the strength of evidence from the single living complainant.

Pell has vehemently denied any wrongdoing since being charged in 2017 following a lengthy police investigation.

He immediately resigned as Vatican treasurer and returned from Rome to Australia to face charges and clear his name.

Other claims were also unlikely, he said, particularly that the boys would have had access to altar wine, which was "always locked away" after mass.

"You could scarcely imagine a place that was more unlikely to be committing paedophilia crimes than the sacristy of a cathedral after Sunday mass," he said.

This 45-minute police interview was all the jury heard from Pell.

But through their verdicts they preferred the evidence given by the complainant who sources who witnessed his evidence described as a wholly credible.

For much of his year in prison Pell was held in 23-hour lock down at the Melbourne Assessment Prison because of fears for his safety.

He was moved to Barwon Prison after a security scare in January.

Legal experts say Pell's High Court appeal will go down as one of the most significant in Australian history, in particular in regards to what the court says about the standing of juries.

Today's decision will do little to sway the court of public opinion in Pell's favour.

But sources say that is of little concern to him.

The end of Pell's criminal proceedings now clears the way for the child abuse royal commission to release their unredacted findings into how church leaders in Ballarat and Melbourne handled the abuse crisis.

Pell was a key witness in hearings into each diocese with reports that followed virtually silent in regards to his evidence so as not to prejudice any criminal matters.

The full findings are expected to be damning, and could spark a whole new set of legal woes for the Cardinal.