News George Pell George Pell conviction quashed, to walk free from Barwon Prison in Victoria
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George Pell conviction quashed, to walk free from Barwon Prison in Victoria

There were calls for champagne as George Pell's appeal was quashed.
George Pell was released on Tuesday after serving 400 days behind bars after the High Court quashed his convictions. Photo: AAP
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Cardinal George Pell was released from prison after the country’s highest court quashed his child sex abuse convictions. 

As the High Court decision was handed down, Pell was with a small number of his legal team inside the maximum security Barwon prison at Lara on the south western outskirts of Melbourne.

He released a statement at 11am saying he had “maintained his innocence while suffering from a serious injustice”.

“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.”

The ABC’s Kate McKenna reported that due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, the High Court registry room in Brisbane, which usually sits about 16 people in the public gallery, only allowed three journalists inside for the decision on Tuesday morning.

“So they kept the door open and at 10am, the Chief Justice [Susan Kiefel] entered the room and swiftly delivered the verdict, essentially allowing Cardinal Pell special leave to appeal and allowing the appeal itself and quashing his convictions,” she explained.

Chief Justice Kiefel handed down the ruling on behalf of the full bench  to the near-empty High Court, and unanimously found Pell’s conviction for child sex abuse should be overturned and he should immediately be released from prison.

“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 guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and the verdicts of acquittal be entered in their places,” a summary of their decision, handed down on Tuesday, read.

At 10.30am, Victoria Police released a statement regarding the High Court decision:

“We respect the decision of the High Court in this matter and continue to provide support to those complainants involved. Victoria Police remains committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed.

“We would also like to acknowledge the thorough work on this case by Taskforce Sano investigators over many years,” it read.

Pell, 78, Australia’s most senior Catholic, was convicted in December 2018 of raping a 13-year-old choirboy and molesting his friend after a Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.

He has maintained his innocence since being confronted with the allegations by Victoria Police in Rome four years ago, but a jury of 12 and Victoria’s Court of Appeal ruled otherwise.

Pell’s lawyers have argued the jury was wrong and the appeal court majority made a mistake.

The High Court handed down its decision in Brisbane on Tuesday morning.

The appeal bid was based on two grounds – firstly that Chief Justice Ann Ferguson and President Chris Maxwell made an error in requiring Pell to prove the offending was “impossible” in order to raise reasonable doubt.

Secondly, his lawyers have argued the judges erred in concluding the guilty verdicts were not unreasonable, because of findings there was reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

The full bench of seven judges must first determine whether they will granted Pell special leave to appeal the decision, before the appeal itself can be determined.

Pell has spent more than 400 days behind bars since being taken into custody last February.

His lawyers have urged the High Court to quash his convictions and release him immediately.

Prosecutors, led by Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd QC, want his conviction to stand.

-with AAP