Cardinal George Pell has been released from a maximum security prison south-west of Melbourne after the High Court quashed his five convictions for child sexual abuse.
In a unanimous decision handed down at 10am on Tuesday, all seven High Court justices said Cardinal Pell should be acquitted.
“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,” the full bench of seven judges said in their judgment, handed down in Brisbane.
At 12.30pm, as two helicopters and a pack of journalists gathered outside Barwon maximum security prison at Lara, Cardinal Pell emerged, alone in the back seat of a small black SUV, and was driven away.
The ABC reported he was then taken to a church property in Melbourne’s inner east, where a nun greeted him at the door and helped him inside.
He had served 400 days behind bars.
Even before he had been driven from the jail, Cardinal Pell had released a statement saying a “serious injustice” had been remedied.
“I hold no ill will to 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.”
Shortly after the cardinal’s release, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews posted a short statement to social media: “I make no comment about today’s High Court decision”.
“But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you,” he wrote.
There was widespread reaction after the High Court’s ruling: From the key witness in the Cardinal’s trials, from his friends and supporters and from Australia’s Catholic bishops.
The father of the choirboy who died in 2014, one of two boys Cardinal Pell was charged with abusing, said he was shocked at the High Court’s decision. His lawyer Lisa Flynn said in a statement the father was also heartbroken for the surviving boy.
“Our client says this man, who the jury believed, is an upstanding citizen who had nothing to gain from speaking out other than to protect other children from the pain and suffering he has to live with on a daily basis,” Ms Flynn said.
The father will continue to pursue a civil case against Cardinal Pell.
Cardinal Pell was charged by Victoria Police officers after a man came forward in 2014 alleging he and another choirboy had been sexually abused at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.
That former choirboy, now in his 30s, gave evidence in court, revealing he felt compelled to come forward after the death of the other boy.
A jury convicted Cardinal Pell of five charges in December 2018. An earlier trial had been abandoned after the jury failed to reach a verdict.
Lawyers for the surviving complainant aren’t expected to make any statement on Tuesday.
In a statement, Victoria Police acknowledged the work of its investigators and said support was being provided to the complainant in the case.
“Victoria Police remains committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed,” the statement said.
Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions would not comment on its decision to prosecute Cardinal Pell, or on the High Court’s ruling.
Meanwhile, former prime minister and Pell supporter Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney he didn’t want to comment other than saying “let the judgment speak for itself”.
“That’s as it’s been and as it will be but, as I said, today is just a day to let the High Court judgement speak for itself,” he said.
Cardinal Pell’s release from jail has also been welcomed by those who believe in his innocence.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the result did not change the church’s commitment to child safety.
“Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“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.”
Archbishop Coleridge said anyone with allegations of sexual abuse by church personnel should go to the police.
“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,” he said.
Ballarat Bishop Paul Bird said the case had divided opinions in legal circles and the general community, and particularly in his diocese because of Cardinal Pell’s early connections there.
“Now that the highest court in the land has given a judgment, I hope this will bring some sense of resolution to all those affected by the proceedings,” Bishop Bird said.
Bishop Bird said the High Court decision ended months of uncertainty.
“The whole process of trials and appeals has been distressing, most immediately for those directly involved in the court proceedings but also for others in the community, including victims and survivors of abuse and their families.”