Former Vatican treasurer George Pell left Barwon Prison near Melbourne after the High Court overturned five counts of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s.

Cardinal George Pell sits in the back seat of a car as he leaves prison in Geelong, Australia Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Cardinal George Pell sits in the back seat of a car as he leaves prison in Geelong, Australia Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (AP)

Australia's highest court on Tuesday acquitted former Vatican treasurer George Pell of sexually assaulting two teenaged choirboys in the 1990s, allowing the 78-year-old cardinal to walk free from jail.

The High Court ordered Pell's convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place, ending the most high profile case of alleged historical sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic Church.

The seven judges of the High 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.

'No ill will'

"I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feels; 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.

The Vatican had no immediate comment on a verdict that comes in the middle of Holy Week, the period leading up to Easter which is the most important day in the Christian calendar.

Pope Francis, who appointed Pell to overhaul the Vatican's vast finances in 2014, said previously he would comment only after all avenues of appeal had been exhausted.

Pell, a polarising 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.

The High Court overturned a lower appeal court's decision to uphold Pell's conviction on the basis it had failed to consider evidence at the trial which should have raised doubt that he was guilty.

'Innocent person'

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.

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.

After an appeal to a lower court upheld the guilty verdict, Pell's lawyers took the case to the High Court.

"Our client says he is heartbroken for the surviving victim 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 in advance of the ruling that her client would not comment on Tuesday.

Previous hearings of the case have seen crowded courtrooms as media and supporters for both sides jostled for a place. But Tuesday's decision was delivered to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of national restrictions on travel and public gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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

"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" said Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the conference.

Source: Reuters