Cardinal George Pell is enjoying his first days of freedom at a Carmelite monastery in a Melbourne suburb after serving 409 days in solitary confinement for a crime of which the Australian High Court has now unanimously ruled he was wrongly convicted.
In a judgment delivered on Tuesday, the court of seven justices overturned decisions by two lower courts that had sentenced him to six years in prison, concluding that the Vatican’s former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy had been convicted on evidence that “did not establish” the “requisite standard of proof” of guilt.
Such a unanimous verdict is very rare for the country’s highest court.
Cardinal Pell, 78, was jailed in February 2019 based on the testimony of a man who accused the cardinal of assaulting him and a fellow choirboy, who has died and had since withdrawn the allegations, at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s.
In a statement, Cardinal Pell said he bore “no ill will” toward his accuser and did not want his acquittal to add to the bitterness in the community.
“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 pedophilia in the Church.”
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” Cardinal Pell said.
He said the “only basis for long-term healing is truth, and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.”
In its statement released on Tuesday, the Vatican said it “always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority” and “welcomes” the High Court’s “unanimous decision.” It added that Cardinal Pell has “always maintained his innocence” and “waited for the truth to be ascertained.”
The statement also said the Holy See “reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.”
Peter Westmore, a former president of the National Civic Council in Australia, a Christian lobby organization, told the Register Tuesday it was “wonderful” that the cardinal will be able to “celebrate Mass again in Holy Week and Easter 2020.”
Present throughout the jury trials, Westmore maintained early on that the conviction was “utterly incomprehensible.” He stressed the significance of the High Court’s unanimous decision, that the court ordered that the convictions “be quashed, and judgments of acquittal be entered in their place.”
‘A Grave Injustice’
Writing in the daily newspaper The Australian, associate editor John Ferguson, not historically an ally of the cardinal, acknowledged Cardinal Pell was the “victim of a grave injustice” and that critics of the Australian cardinal “cannot run from the High Court decision.
“It is straight and clean as a high-powered bullet. The cardinal was wronged,” he wrote.
Cardinal Pell, who always vigorously denied the charges and voluntarily returned to Australia to defend himself in 2017, was originally found guilty at a trial in the state of Victoria in 2018 after a mistrial. He later appealed, taking the case to Victoria’s Court of Appeal, where a three-justice panel decided last August to uphold his conviction in a 2-1 decision.
The one dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, expressed concern about a number of questionable elements in the case and concluded the conviction could “not be permitted to stand,” as it did not sufficiently withstand the burden of proof. The High Court, after examining the arguments of two of the appeal-court judges, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Court of Appeal President Chris Maxwell, sided with Weinberg.
Various issues dogged the case and Cardinal Pell’s subsequent wrongful imprisonment from the outset, including legislative procedures that appeared to unfairly favor accusers over the accused in abuse trials, questions over the rectitude and investigative practices of the Victoria police, a mass media hostile to the Church that waged a campaign of character assassination against the cardinal, and justices and juries influenced by such media coverage.
Chris Merrit, legal affairs editor for The Australian, wrote that the Victorian justice system was the “biggest loser” from the “resounding vindication” of the cardinal.
“It is now clear to all that the conviction itself should never have happened,” he said, adding that the case has “tarnished the international reputation of Australian justice.”
He observed that Ferguson and Maxwell had been shown to have made a “fundamental error,” that the “reliability of the state’s jury system has been left in doubt,” and that the “wisdom of the police in effectively advertising for complaints about the cardinal has also been called into question.”
Merrit also noted that how Victorian legislation, with the intent of protecting victims of sexual assault, had resulted in the original jury being denied the “full story” about the main accuser.
“The Pell jury was never told that the complainant had a history of psychological problems that required treatment,” he noted, and both the original trial and appeal placed “too much emphasis on their partly formed assessment that the complainant was a witness of truth and was not a fantasist.”
Westmore noted the “disgraceful role” of the Victoria police and their “Operation Tethering” probe that targeted Cardinal Pell before any formal allegations of historical sexual offenses were made. It was a “fishing expedition,” Westmore explained, “using false allegations, to destroy Cardinal Pell’s reputation.”
However, Westmore thinks any prosecution of the authorities “would be a mistake” and that there was “no certainty that a prosecution would be possible, let alone succeed.” Far better, Westmore believes, would be to use the High Court’s unanimous decision to help the public realize that the cardinal “should never have been tried, let alone convicted.”
But others are also wondering how this case was ever brought to trial.
“A Te Deum should be sung for the release — at last — of Cardinal Pell, but this is only Act Two of the drama,” professor John Rist, patristics scholar and friend of the cardinal, told the Register Tuesday.
Rist said “Act Three” should be commissioning an investigation of those “who promoted the ridiculous accusations in the first place,” adding that in light of the unanimous High Court decision, it is “hard to understand” why prosecutors were “so desperately anxious to proceed — to the extent of radically changing their line of attack — in what must now be judged a frivolous, malicious or mercenary pursuit of injustice.”
Throughout his imprisonment, Cardinal Pell was held in solitary confinement; and in December, he was relocated to Melbourne’s Barwon Prison, famous as a jail for high-profile criminals and organized-crime gang members.
In January, the Register reported he had developed a “personal ministry,” corresponding with other prisoners who had been writing to him about their lives.
A source close to the cardinal said he had “struck up a good rapport with his fellow inmates,” and the source had heard that when his release was announced, “the whole prison clapped.”
The source spoke of an “incredible sense of relief and pre-paschal joy across the Catholic community here, especially after the lockdown and so many who have felt abandoned.”
The cardinal has received much support over the past year and reserved “special thanks” in his statement “for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support.” He also thanked in particular his family, friends, advisers and his legal team for their “unwavering resolve” to “throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.”
It is not clear what the cardinal’s next moves are now, but in the short term he is expected to stay at the Carmelite monastery in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. The cardinal has a devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and, providentially, relics of the Little Flower are on tour in Australia and just happen to be visiting the monastery at the exact same time.
The source expressed concern that the cardinal might find it difficult coming out of solitary confinement, but that the monastery is “a very good choice for him, very secure,” a place where he can “pray, be isolated from the coronavirus and celebrate Mass — which he will most certainly have done on arrival, having been deprived of doing so in prison.” He is expected to return to Rome at some stage, even if just for a visit, as he still has his apartment and belongings there.
In terms of health, the cardinal, who will turn 79 in June, is reported to be well and has lost some weight during what he said light-heartedly was an “extended retreat.”
“He has had to get used to not having his desserts twice a day,” the source joked, adding that he will now also be able to renew that pleasure and drink some wine again.
Owing to the coronavirus, Cardinal Pell may have to remain in isolation for two weeks, the source said. In his statement, the cardinal said he was aware of the “current health crisis” and was “praying for all those affected and our medical front-line personnel.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.