Cardinal George Pell has been freed from jail after Australia’s highest court overturned his convictions for child sexual abuse.
The ex-Vatican treasurer, 78, was the most senior Catholic figure ever jailed for such crimes.
In 2018, a jury found he abused two boys in Melbourne in the 1990s.
But the High Court of Australia quashed that verdict on Tuesday, bringing an immediate end to Cardinal Pell’s six-year jail sentence.
The Australian cleric had maintained his innocence since he was charged by police in June 2017.
His case rocked the Catholic Church, where he had been one of the Pope’s most senior advisers.
A full bench of seven judges ruled unanimously in Cardinal Pell’s favour, finding the jury had not properly considered all the evidence presented at the trial.
It was the cardinal’s final legal challenge, after his conviction was upheld by a lower court last year.
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Cardinal Pell said in a statement after the decision. He had served over 400 days of his sentence.
He was released from Victoria’s Barwon Prison shortly after midday local time (02:00 GMT) and driven to a Carmelite Monastery in Melbourne, local media said.
Why was Pell jailed?
In December 2018, a jury found him guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in private rooms of St Patrick’s Cathedral in the mid-90s – when the cleric was Archbishop of Melbourne.
The convictions included one count of sexual penetration and four counts of committing indecent acts.
The trial heard testimony from a man alleged to be the sole surviving victim. Dozens of other witnesses provided alibis and other evidence.
Cardinal Pell appealed against the verdict in Victoria’s Court of Appeal last year, but three judges upheld the decision by a 2-1 majority.
Why did his appeal succeed this time?
The cardinal argued that the jury, and previous appeal judges, had relied too heavily on the “compelling” evidence of the alleged victim.
The cleric’s lawyers didn’t seek to discredit that testimony, but rather argued that the jury had not properly considered other evidence.
The High Court agreed, ruling that other testimonies had introduced “a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place”.
“The jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt,” said the court in its summary judgement.
What’s been the reaction?
Cardinal Pell said an injustice had been “remedied”, and said he held “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 in a statement.
“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 father of the deceased choir boy was in shock at the decision, his lawyer said.
“He says he no longer has faith in our country’s criminal justice system,” said Lisa Flynn.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “The High Court has made its decision and that must be respected.”
He added his “thoughts [were] always with” survivors of abuse, for whom “mere discussion of these topics brings back great hurt”.
Victoria Police said it remained “committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed”.
What now for Pell and the Church?
By John McManus, BBC News
There’ll be much relief in the Vatican at the quashing of Cardinal Pell’s guilty verdict.
In 2014 Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Pell as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy – running the Vatican’s finances.
Before he went to trial, Pell had started to institute reforms within the Vatican’s sprawling finances, opening them up to a degree of scrutiny never seen before.
But he encountered resistance from vested interests within the Vatican. Critics say that since his departure from Rome, the reforms have stalled. Last year prosecutors raided the offices of the Secretariat of State, as part of an investigation into shady investments.
The question is – will Cardinal Pell now return to the Vatican to finish his work – and are there people there with cause to worry?
Whatever the answer to those questions, there’s no doubt that the sudden reversal in Cardinal Pell’s fortunes has vindicated the Pope’s decision not to strip him of his clerical titles or boot him out of the priesthood, until ALL legal avenues had been exhausted.