The High Court has acquitted George Pell of all child sex convictions. He will walk free from jail today, having served one year of a six-year term.
The verdict was delivered in Brisbane, with only three people allowed into the court room – stark contrast to previous hearings where there have been demonstrations outside the court.
“… A significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted …” – High Court of Australia
The prosecution case against George Pell fell apart on the second day of last month’s High Court hearing. It was a matter of timing; was there enough time for the alleged offences by Cardinal Pell to take place in the priests’ sacristy of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral?
Also, had the onus of proof been shifted from the prosecution to the defence, possibly by the convincing “demeanour” of the sole prosecution eye witness in the case – the surviving choir boy? Both sides regarded the complainant as a witness of truth.
By the end of the hearing, Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Kerri Judd QC, had abandoned the case that the prosecution had made in the first trials and the earlier appeal in Melbourne.
The earlier argument was there was a window of five or six minutes in which the offences took place. But by the end of the High Court hearing, a much longer timetable was being suggested as Judd was peppered with questions from the bench.
How long did Pell, newly installed as Archbishop, stand at the west door of the cathedral on his first Sunday in the job? How long did the altar servers take to return the holy vessels to the sacristy? (This became a major sticking point.) How did the two boys manage to sneak into choir practice late without being noticed?
At the end of the hearing, Pell’s lawyer, Bret Walker SC, who had been quite mild mannered until then, pounced. The shifting timescale by the prosecution side was too much. “Our submission is that we should not have to put up with such improvisation at this time.”
Today, the unanimous judgment by the High Court found that “on the assumption that the jury had assessed the complainant’s evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable, the evidence of the opportunity witnesses nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.”
“[There was] a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”
The High Court’s unanimous decision had remedied a serious injustice, George Pell said in a statement releaesd after the verdict.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
He then thanked his thousands of supporters for all their prayers and letters, his family and his legal team.
“Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president od the Australian Catholic Bishops conference says in a statement. “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.
“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. The safety of children remains supremely important not only for the bishops, but for the entire Catholic community.
“Any person with allegations of sexual abuse by church personnel should go to the police.”
This decision will cause some, survivors of abuse and others to be upset or hurt and they will need support at this time.
1800 Respect is a 24-hour telephone and online crisis support service available on 1800 737 732 or at www.1800respect.org.au; for 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.