By Vatican News
Pope Francis received Cardinal George Pell in audience on Monday, and in greeting him also thanked him for his witness. The 79-year-old Australian Cardinal, prefect emeritus of the Secretariat for the Economy (holding the position from 2014 to 2019), returned to Rome in the past few days. He had left the Vatican in July 2017 to face charges regarding the sexual abuse of minors. Pope Francis granted him a period of leave to be able to defend himself against the accusations.
Pell’s trial: found guilty in the first trial
Here is a brief summary of Pell’s judicial process. He was formally accused in 2017 for the sexual abuse of minors committed on two separate occasions in 1996 and 1997 when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne. The first trial took place in July of that year. In December, Melbourne’s Magistrates’ Court handed down a guilty verdict and Pell began his 6-year prison sentence in February 2019. He was placed in isolation.
Pell: “I am innocent”
Cardinal Pell declared his innocence, saying that the crimes of which he had been accused were horrible and intolerable and that he would continue to fight the accusations. His legal team continued to sustain the verdict was unreasonable because the evidence on which the verdict had been based left open a reasonable doubt.
Holy See: awaiting the definitive establishment of the facts
Via a statement from the Press Office, the Holy See affirmed its maximum respect for the Australian judicial system. The statement continued saying that “out of that respect”, the Holy See was awaiting the outcome of the appeal process, recalling that the Cardinal maintained his innocence and that he had the right to defend himself until the last appeal. At the same time, the Holy See emphasized the strong commitment of the Church in the fight against sexual abuse. To guarantee the course of justice, the Pope confirmed the precautionary measures already imposed on Pell by the local Ordinary when he return to Australia, “That is, while awaiting the definitive assessment of the facts, as is the norm, Cardinal George Pell is prohibited from exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors.”
The Australian bishops also invited Catholics, strongly shaken by the situation, not to draw definitive conclusions before the judicial process was complete.
First appeal upholds guilty verdict, with one judge dissenting
In June 2019, Victoria’s Court of Appeal began the second phase of the process with the defense arguing that the verdict was unreasonable and there were procedural flaws in the first instance trial. The court handed down their 2-1 conclusion in August 2019 upholding the original guilty verdict. The dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, strongly opposed the verdict on the basis that a person cannot be found guilty if the evidence does not clearly demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, otherwise an innocent person risks being condemned.
Holy See: awaits the completion of the judicial process
In this case as well, the Holy See, in a statement, reiterated its respect for the Australian court, while awaiting further developments as the judicial process continued, recalling once again that Pell maintained his innocence.
The High Court exonerates Pell unanimously
In March 2020, the Pell case reached Australia’s High Court which agreed to hear Pell’s final appeal based on Mark Weinberg’s arguments.
On 7 April 2020, that court, composed of seven judges, criticizing the inconsistencies of the Court of Appeal’s ruling, unanimously exonerated Cardinal Pell because there was a reasonable possibility that the crime had not taken place. Therefore, there was significant probability that an innocent person could be condemned. The Cardinal leaves prison after 400 days of incarceration.
Pell: justice means truth for everyone
Pell states that a he had endured a serious injustice which “has been remedied”, and that he held “no ill will toward my accuser”. His trial, he underlined “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”, he added, “was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not”.
In addition, the Cardinal stated that he hoped his acquittal would not cause any further pain. "The only basis for long term healing,” he stated, “is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.”
Cardinal Pell thanked all those who had prayed for him and for those who had supported him during that difficult time. He expressed gratitude to his legal team who had worked determinedly so that justice would prevail in order to shed light on “manufactured obscurity” and reveal the truth.
The Pope prays for those who have been unjustly condemned
Just hours after the news was released, during a Mass broadcast live from Santa Marta during the lockdown, Pope Francis said, without referring to Cardinal Pell:
“In these days of Lent we have seen the persecution that Jesus suffered, and how the doctors of the Law had it in for Him; He was judged with this dogged fury, even though He was innocent. I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer an unjust sentence as a result of those who had it in for them.”
The Holy See welcomes the acquittal
The overturning of Cardinal Pell’s sentence was met with satisfaction in the Holy See. In a statement, it affirmed that it had always “expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority”. The statement emphasized, while “entrusting his case to the court’s justice, Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence, and has waited for the truth to be ascertained.”