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 that 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 on Tuesday before he left prison.
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 relied too heavily on one person’s evidence. The judges agreed, saying the jury did not properly assess other information.
“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 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 before.
“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.
Victoria Police said it respected the court’s decision, adding: “Victoria Police remains committed to investigating sexual assault offences and providing justice for victims no matter how many years have passed.”
Who is George Pell?
Cardinal Pell was among the highest-ranking figures in the Church’s global hierarchy.
Made a cardinal in 2003, he was summoned to Rome in 2014 to help clean up the Vatican’s finances.
He forged a reputation as a disciplined Church leader who held strict conservative views against same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.