Cardinal George Pell has walked from prison as a free man after Australia's highest court quashed his convictions for child sex abuse.
In a unanimous decision handed down Tuesday morning, the High Court of Australia found that the jury that convicted Pell should have held a reasonable doubt over whether he was guilty.
Pell, 78, was Australia's most senior Catholic and an inner circle adviser to Pope Francis before he was charged with four counts of indecent assault and one count of sexual penetration of a child.
He was found guilty by a jury in December 2018. The Crown case at trial rested on the evidence of one man, now in his 30s, who testified that Pell had sexually abused him and a friend in 1996 and 1997 when they were 13-year-old choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
The friend died in 2014 and, as far as the evidence suggested, did not tell anyone if he had been abused by Pell. In 2001, his mother asked if he had ever been abused and he said he had not.
The case went to the Court of Appeal, where Pell lost in a 2-1 split decision, and then to the High Court, which on Tuesday morning unanimously ordered the convictions be quashed and a verdict of acquittal entered.
The decision brings the case, in motion since June 2017, to an end. There are no further avenues for appeal.
Even though the jury had found the complainant to be credible and reliable, that was not enough, the court found. The evidence of other witnesses, who testified that Pell would not have had the opportunity to commit the crimes based on the usual practices in the cathedral following Sunday Mass, should have given rise to a reasonable doubt.
The court identified three unchallenged pieces of evidence in particular that they say would have required a rational jury to hold a reasonable doubt: that Pell would have stayed on the steps of the cathedral greeting parishioners for at least 10 minutes after Mass on the relevant dates; that he would have been accompanied by at least one other person when in the priest's sacristy, where the crimes were said to have occurred; and that the sacristy was generally a hive of activity after Mass.
There was "a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof", the court wrote.
Pell was released from Barwon Prison hours after the ruling. In a statement, he said he held "no ill will" towards the man who accused him.
"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. "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 point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not."
The father of the choirboy who died in 2014 said, in a statement released through his lawyer, that he was "in shock".
"He is struggling to comprehend the decision by the high court of Australia. He says he no longer has faith in our country’s criminal justice system," the lawyer said.