Cardinal George Pell to be freed as Australia's High Court overturns sex abuse conviction

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(CNN) Cardinal George Pell will be immediately freed from prison after Australia's High Court unanimously overturned his conviction on five counts of historical child sex abuse.

The momentous decision, handed down Tuesday by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, ends a five-year legal battle that started when a man in his 30s approached police alleging Pell had abused him as a child in the mid-1990s.

At the time, Pell was Vatican Treasurer and the highest ranking Catholic official to ever be publicly accused of child sex offenses. Pell strenuously denied the charges, which he dismissed in a 2016 police interview as a "product of fantasy."

In its two-page summary of the ruling, the High Court said that the jury "ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant's guilt with respect to each of the offenses for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place."

Tuesday's High Court ruling overturns his conviction on one count of sexual penetration of a child and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child. Pell's name will also be removed from Australia's register of child sex offenders.

Very few people were present in the small Brisbane courtroom when the decision was handed down, a stark contrast from previous hearings when critics and supporters formed long queues to get a seat in the courtroom or spillover rooms specially set up to cope with demand.

With state borders closed and social distancing enforced due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was not possible for many people to travel north from Melbourne, where the trials were held, to Brisbane, a two-hour flight away. One child abuse survivor, who has attended most previous hearings, was refused entry on arrival at Brisbane Airport and flown back to Melbourne as part of pandemic control measures

The jury's guilty verdict rested on the evidence of one man who testified that Pell had abused him and a fellow choirboy after mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne one Sunday when Pell was Archbishop. At the time, the boys were 13 years old.

The second man didn't tell anyone about the attack and took his own life in 2014 before the allegations surfaced. Neither man can be named due to Australian laws to protect victims of sexual abuse.

The man claimed that Pell cornered them in the priest's sacristy after Mass one Sunday and forced them to perform sex acts. No one witnessed the alleged attack and there was no physical evidence, just one man's word against another's. The alleged victim's testimony has never been released, but the jury found him so convincing they reached an unanimous guilty verdict.

Pell didn't take the stand during his trial, but his lawyer Robert Richter QC told the court the allegations were so implausible that only a "mad man would attempt to rape boys" at such a time and place.

The High Court ruling, which can't be challenged, will be met with relief by the Vatican, which had pledged to conduct its own investigation into Pell once he had exhausted all avenues of appeal. That will no longer be necessary.

Pell's accuser is yet to respond, but in a statement released last year he said the criminal process had taken him to places that "in my darkest moments, that I feared I would not return from."

Advocates say the decision will deliver a blow to survivors whose faith in the legal system had been restored by the guilty verdict.

Pell was convicted in December 2018 after the second of two trials held in secret to avoid prejudicing a third trial, which the Crown Prosecution opted to abandon before it began.

The first trial ended in a hung jury when the 12 jurors failed to reach a verdict after several days of deliberation

The second trial led to a six-year prison sentence that started on March 13, 2019 when Pell was led by police from court to a waiting prison van.

His legal team took his case to the Victoria Court of Appeals, arguing that there were 13 reasons why there should have been reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors when they returned the five guilty verdicts.

Two of three appeals court judges disagreed. In a ruling handed down on August 21, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell said they found the victim to be a "very compelling witness, (he) was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth."

They said it was possible for the jury to have convicted Pell beyond reasonable doubt. However, Justice Mark Weinberg disagreed. In his dissenting statement, he said he thought the witness "was inclined to embellish aspects of his account."

"Having had regard to the whole of the evidence led at trial, and having deliberated long and hard over this matter, I find myself in the position of having a genuine doubt as to (Pell's) guilt," he said. "My doubt is a doubt which the jury ought also to have had."

Pell spent several months in Melbourne Assessment Prison before being moved to the high security Barwon Prison earlier this year, according to local media reports.

He has spent just over one year in prison, reportedly in solitary confinement due to his age, poor health and for his own safety as a then convicted child sex offender.

The Catholic Church has been plagued by claims of sexual abuse carried out by priests and other senior Catholic officials.

In December, Pope Francis abolished Vatican secrecy rules for cases of sexual abuse, effectively allowing the Catholic Church to share documents and information with civil authorities, and allowing victims to be updated of the status of their cases. It followed a historic summit in February 2019, called by the Pope to examine the church's response to claims of child sexual assault.

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