Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican treasurer, has been freed from jail after his previous conviction of child sex abuse was overthrown. The High Court in Brisbane, Australia, unanimously found that the jury at his trial had not properly considered all the evidence.
A panel of seven judges ruled that the jury ought to have entertained a doubt about his guilt. The judges cited “compounding improbabilities” to conclude that the verdicts on five charges reached in 2018 were “unreasonable or cannot be supported by the evidence”
He had been convicted of molesting two altar boys in a Melbourne cathedral during the 1990s and has spent a year in prison. He was the most senior figure in the Roman Catholic church to be jailed for such crimes.
Afterwards. Pell said: “I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice. This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.”
WHO IS CARDINAL PELL?
George Pell is one of the highest-ranking prelates in the Roman Catholic Church. Born in Ballarat in 1941, his calling to the priesthood was the beginning of a meteoric rise to the top of the church hierarchy. Made Archbishop of Melbourne, then Sydney, he was created a cardinal in 2003. Eleven years later he was summoned to Rome to become chief of the Vatican’s finances, a new position created by Pope Francis in the wake of scandals at the Vatican Bank.
Pell was attempting to institute reforms within the bank when the abuse allegations against him started to grow. Theologically, he is regarded as being on the conservative wing of the church.
As an Australian archbishop, Pell was instrumental in designing a scheme to help the victims of sexual abuse by clergy, called the Melbourne Response. Like other parts of the world, the church in Australia has been hit hard by revelations of abuse. But Pell was also accused of a cover-up by abuse victims. Pell denied that – and charges of deliberately moving a paedophile priest between parishes – but he admitted he could have done more.
ALLEGATIONS AND TRIAL
Police charged Pell with sex offences in June 2017, saying only that he faced “historical” allegations by “multiple complainants”. The cardinal immediately denied any wrongdoing. In December 2018 Cardinal Pell was convicted of abusing two choir boys in Melbourne’s cathedral in 1996 and was jailed for six years. He had denied the charges. The verdict was reported only in February 2019, because of al legal ruling by the judge in the case, temporarily barring reporting. That was due to the possibility of prejudicing a second trial – which in the end, did not proceed.
The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of one man, one of the alleged victims – the other alleged victim had died. The witness said that Pell abused him after a Sunday morning church service. The witness said Pell told him and the other boy that they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, and then forced each boy into indecent acts. Pell abused one of the boys again in 1997, it was alleged.
His trial was heard twice in 2018 because a first jury failed to reach a verdict. A second jury unanimously convicted him of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.
Pell’s legal team – and many churchgoing Catholics – had argued that it was impossible for Pell to have carried out the abuse in the place it was alleged to have happened: a busy sacristy just after mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. They argued that such a spot would have been extremely busy with many people. They also argued that the robes Pell was wearing for his duties would have made it impossible for him to expose his penis because they were too heavy to lift and did not have any slits in them.
IMPACT ON THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Pell is the highest-ranked prelate to be convicted for sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. As such, the scandal surrounding his trial has dented the church’s reputation even further. But the impact of his conviction – and the continued spotlight it brought on the church’s problem with sexual offenders within its ranks – goes much deeper than that. In 2014 the Pope appointed Pell as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy – in effect, running the Vatican’s finances.
That position expired last year, but before he was put on trial, Pell had started to institute reforms within the Vatican’s sprawling finances, opening them up to a degree of scrutiny never seen before. Among his changes were new accounting standards, and the independent auditing of the Vatican Bank’s accounts. But even before he went on trial, Pell had encountered resistance to his reforms from vested interests within the Vatican. Critics say that since his departure from Rome, the reforms have stalled. In September Vatican prosecutors raided the offices of the Secretariat of State, as part of an investigation into shady investments. Some within the Church have alleged that Pell’s removal has benefited those who feared his reforms.
Here is a timeline of the Cardinal Pell story, from Associated Press:
16 July 1996 Auxiliary Bishop George Pell is appointed Archbishop of Melbourne.
December 1996 Pell molested two choirboys inside St Patrick’s Cathedral, according to testimony by one of the victims.
26 March 2001 Pell becomes Archbishop of Sydney.
21 October 2003 Pope John Paul II makes him a cardinal.
25 February 2014 Pope Francis appoints him to the powerful position of Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
8 April 2014 One of the molested choirboys dies of a heroin overdose. He had not made an allegation of the crime and had told his mother he had not been abused.
5 August 2014 Police in the Australian state of Victoria establish a task force to investigate how religious and other non-government organisations handled abuse accusations.
18 June 2015 Task force detectives take a statement from the surviving choirboy.
12 December 2015 Australian media reports that Pell has cancelled an appearance before an Australian inquiry into how institutions responded to child sexual abuse. Pell said he could not fly back to Australia because of ill health
23 December 2015 Task force appeals to public for allegations of sexual offences committed while Pell was Archbishop in Melbourne.
1 March 2016 Pell begins testifying by videolink from Rome to the Australian child abuse inquiry.
27 July 2016 Pell denies sexual abuse allegations made on an Australian current affairs TV programme.
19 October 2016 Australian detectives travel to Rome to question Pell and put the choirboy’s allegations to him.
29 June 2017 Pell charged with multiple counts of historical sexual assault, making him the most senior cleric to be charged in the abuse crisis. Denying the accusations, he takes immediate leave of absence from the Vatican to return to Australia to defend himself.
26 July 2017 Pell appears in court on charges that he sexually abused a number of children in Victoria decades earlier. Details of the allegations are not made public.
1 May 2018 Pell is committed to stand trial and pleads not guilty to all charges.
2 May 2018 A judge separates the charges into two trials one relating to his tenure as the Archbishop of Melbourne and the other for his time as a priest in the 1970s.
15 August 2018 The trial of the Melbourne case begins and runs for four weeks.
20 September 2018 After more than five days of deliberation the jury fail to agree on a verdict and is discharged.
7 November 2018 Retrial begins.
11 December 2018 Jury unanimously convicts Pell on all charges.
26 February 2019 Order forbidding publication of details of the trial lifted. Second trial on earlier charges abandoned.
13 March 2019 Judge sentences Pell to six years in prison on five sex abuse convictions. He must serve three years and eight months before he is eligible for parole
5-6 June 2019 Victoria state’s Court of Appeal hears Pell’s appeal against the convictions.
21 August 2019 Appeals court rules 2-1 to uphold the convictions.
13 November 2019 Australia’s High Court agrees to hear an appeal.
12 March 2020 After two days of hearings, the High Court reserves its decision.
7 April 2020 The High Court overturns the convictions and frees Pell from jail.