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Australian High Court Overturns Cardinal George Pell’s Sex-Abuse Conviction, Vatican Applauds Decision

Cardinal George Pell attends a news conference at the Vatican, June 29, 2017. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

The Australian High Court ruled Monday night to acquit Cardinal George Pell on all charges of child sexual crimes, overturning Pell’s conviction for sexually assaulting two choir boys in the 1990s and ending the most high-profile criminal case of alleged sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic Church.

In a statement following the decision — his first public comments since his December 2018 conviction, Pell said he has “consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.”

He added that “I hold no ill will toward my accuser.” Pell was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison for molesting two choir boys after Mass in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990’s, a ruling that relied heavily on the testimony of only one of the victims, after the second alleged victim died in 2014 of a heroin overdose when he was 31, without ever reporting that he had been abused.

The High Court, which decided to hear the case in November, said it found a reasonable amount of doubt in the key witness’s testimony, after two appeals court judges who had upheld the convictions had found the former choirboy a “compelling witness.”

But the prior decisions “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 said in a statement.

Pell’s lawyers had argued that the cleric would not have been in the sacristy when his crimes were alleged to have occurred, could not have performed the sexual acts alleged while wearing the cumbersome Mass vestments, and could not have abused the boys in the busy priests’ sacristy without being detected.

“My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church,” Pell said. “The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he added.

The Vatican also applauded the decision to overturn the prosecution, saying in a Tuesday statement that “entrusting his case to the court’s justice, Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence, and has waited for the truth to be ascertained.”

“The Holy See, which has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority, welcomes the High Court’s unanimous decision concerning Cardinal George Pell, acquitting him of the accusations of abuse of minors and overturning his sentence,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said, while adding that the Holy See “reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.”

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