Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for sexually assaulting two young boys in the 1990s has been overturned by the Australian High Court.

Because the court found reasonable doubt of Pell’s crimes, the former Vatican chief financial officer and adviser to Pope Francis will be released with no possibility of a retrial. He was convicted in December of 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne and was serving a six-year sentence in prison.

One of the former choirboys died of a heroin overdose in 2014 and never reported the abuse, but the other individual went to the police in 2015 as an adult and pointed to the cardinal as an abuser of himself and the other boy in 1996. A trial in early 2018 featured a deadlocked jury, but the conviction was made public in February of 2019. The Victorian Court of Appeal upheld the conviction later that year in August.

Emphatically maintaining his innocence, 78-year-old Pell did not testify at either trial or the ensuing appeals. He called the accusations “vile and disgusting.”

Pell made a statement after his acquittal that he does not hold any “ill will” towards the 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.

The Vatican did not make any immediate statement regarding the acquittal, but Pope Francis offered his morning Mass today for those who suffer from unjust sentences, though not mentioning Pell by name. Before the start of the Mass, the Pope said, “I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence (against them).”

Pell is the highest-ranking leader in the Roman Catholic Church that has been found guilty in a time where the church has a pedophilia crisis on its hands. Catholics across the world were shocked at the acquittal, and many cite the length of the case and the secrecy of his second trial as reasons for confusion. No one has had access to the testimony of the accuser.

A trial was cancelled in February 2019 due to legal setbacks in which there were allegations that Cardinal Pell had touched boys in a swimming pool in his hometown of Ballarat. Additionally, two other men came forward last week and accused Pell of sexually abusing them in Ballarat during his time there as a priest in the diocese.

Rosemary O’Grady is a retired lawyer who took notes in service of several victims’ groups during the trials. She points to Pell’s acquittal as evidence of the need for survivors of abuse to have their own representation and said it was a “bad day for democracy.”

Sources: NPR, 4/6/20; New York Times, 4/6/20.

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