Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic found guilty of child sex abuse, has welcomed the Australian High Court’s decision to quash his convictions.
Pope Francis’ former finance minister had spent 13 months in prison but seven judges ruled unanimously on Tuesday that he should be released.
In a statement, the 78-year-old cleric said: “I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.”
Pope Francis appeared to refer to the cardinals acquittal in his morning homily, saying he was praying for all those unjustly persecuted.
Pell was convicted in 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in a back room of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in December 1996 while he was archbishop of Australia’s second-largest city.
Pell was also convicted of indecently assaulting one of the boys after a Mass in early 1997 and sentenced to six years.
The High Court found that the Victorian Court of Appeal was incorrect in its 2-1 majority decision in August to uphold the jury verdicts.
“I hold no ill will toward my accuser,” Pell added, saying: “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 Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement they were "dismayed and heartbroken" by the decision.
Much of the two-day High Court hearing focused on whether the jury should have had a reasonable doubt about Pell’s guilt and whether he could have time to molest the boys in five or six minutes immediately after a Mass.
The Victorian Court of Appeal found in a 2-1 majority in August the cardinal had had enough time to abuse the boys and that the unanimous guilty verdicts were sound.
During the hearing, Pell’s lawyer Bret Walkers said all the prosecution had to do, at his trial and appeals court hearing, was to prove that Pell being left alone while robed or not talking with congregants after Mass was “possible” to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
“That… is a grotesque version of the reversal of onus of proof, if all the Crown has to do is to prove the possibility of something,” he said.
The High Court referred to the "unchallenged evidence" of witnesses in the trial to the cardinal's practice of talking to the congregation on the cathedral stairs after mass, church practice that required him to be accompanied in the cathedral while robed and the "continuous traffic in and out of the priests' sacristy" as causes for reasonable doubt.
The High Court statement said: “The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s (Pell’s) guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted.”
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher called for the ruling to end the pursuit of the cardinal in the courts.
"I am pleased that the cardinal will now be released and I ask that the pursuit of him that brought us to this point now cease," Archbishop Fisher said in a statement.
"The cardinal's vindication today invites broader reflection on our system of justice, our commitment to the presumption of innocence, and our treatment of high-profile figures accused of crimes," he added.
The Vatican has previously said the cardinal would face a canonical investigation after all his appeals had been exhausted in Australia, but it is not known what effect his acquittal will have on any church investigation.