A Polish man who was falsely imprisoned for 18 years over the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl met Pope Francis during yesterday’s general audience.

Tomasz Komenda, who credits the intercession of Pope St. John Paul II for surviving his ordeal and for his eventual acquittal, told reporters he wanted to come to Rome to express his gratitude by visiting the late Polish pope’s tomb.

Komenda, who traveled to the Vatican with his family, had been jailed for 25 years but persistently pleaded his innocence, backed up by extensive investigations. Judges ruled that Komenda, 42, could not have committed the crime after advanced forensic techniques shed new light on the evidence. 

The Polish government decided to review the case at the request of the victim’s parents who had developed doubts about Komenda’s guilt. The 15 year-old girl was killed during a 1997 New Year party in southwestern Poland.

Since Poland’s Supreme Court acquitted Komenda last month, his lawyer has said he is now fighting for compensation from the Polish government of up to 10 million zlotys ($2.7m). 

Pope Francis was “moved” by the man’s suffering, Komenda told reporters after yesterday’s audience. “He listened to my story, blessed and embraced me.”

Cardinal-designate Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, presented Komenda to the pope, and then provided a dinner at his home for the falsely accused ex-prisoner, according to Polish journalist Szymon Holownia.

Holownia said the meal was cooked by a once homeless man called Enzo who had himself spent 20 years in prison. “He had hell in there,” Enzo said on hearing Komenda’s story and reportedly wept at the thought that Komenda had had to endure such suffering as an innocent man whereas he was guilty of his crime.

Komenda told reporters after his acquittal that life in prison was “hell” and that he had been “treated like filth” behind bars. His case shocked Poland and led to its government highlighting it as an example of a dysfunctional justice system that requires deep reform.

Justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the acquittal also showed the mistakes of the system can be corrected: “No one can give back the years that Tomasz Komenda has lost,” he said. “Still, the acquittal restores the sense of dignity of an innocent man who had been wrongly convicted.”

When the three-judge panel declared him innocent, Komenda reportedly buried his face in his hands, saying previous evidence and new facts showed he could not have committed the crime.

He later said: “For the last 18 years I have been asking myself: ‘What have I done wrong to have my life turned into hell?’”