CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexual abuse.

Cardinal George Pell was today freed from prison after the High Court of Australia overturned his convictions on child sex abuse charges. 

It was a monumental decision, and it caps off a tumultuous legal battle between former a Melbourne choirboy and one of the most powerful religious clerics in the world.

There’s a lot to take in, and more to come, but here’s what you need to know to bring you up to speed.

Who is Cardinal George Pell?

Born in Ballarat in 1941, George Pell entered the priesthood in his youth and eventually became one of the most powerful officials in the entire Catholic Church.

At the time of his trial, he was the third most powerful cleric in the institution, and the highest-ranking member of the Church to ever face trial for child sex offences.

Before ascending to the very top levels of the religious institution, he served as the Archbishop of Melbourne, conducting services at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

What’s the go with the original trial?

In December 2018, he faced court in Melbourne on charges that he had sexually abused two choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral between 1996 and 1997.

He proclaimed his innocence in court.

The trial rested on evidence from one of the former choirboys. The other former choirboy referenced in the charges died before the matter was heard in court.

The jury found Cardinal Pell guilty on five counts: One count of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child.

Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for those charges in March 2019.

Was today’s ruling the first time Cardinal Pell challenged the verdict?

No.

Later in 2019, the Victorian Court of Appeal heard arguments from Cardinal Pell’s legal team that his offending was physically impossible, and that a jury should have harboured serious questions regarding his guilt.

Essentially, Cardinal Pell’s legal team argued that even if the jury found the surviving choirboy to be honest and reliable — which they did — they should still have reasonable doubts about his accusations.

That’s crucial, here. Juries are instructed to find a defendant guilty if, and only if, they believe a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.

The three justices, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, Court of Appeal President Chris Maxwell, and Justice Mark Weinberg, unanimously dismissed the first two grounds for appeal, which focused on technical matters pertaining to the case.

But the third element of the appeal, which focused on whether the jury should have doubted Cardinal Pell’s guilt, resulted in a split decision.

While Justices Ferguson and Maxwell dismissed that element of the appeal, Justice Weinberg dissented.

Justice Weinberg “concluded that [the witness’] evidence contained discrepancies, displayed inadequacies, and otherwise lacked probative value so as to cause him to have a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt,” according to the Victorian Court of Appeal’s summary judgment. 

The appeal was dismissed on a 2-1 majority basis, meaning Cardinal Pell remained behind bars.

Nevertheless, the split decision served as encouragement for Cardinal Pell’s legal team to take one final swing in the High Court.

Today, we learned the result of that appeal.

Right. So, walk me through today’s ruling?

This morning, the High Court of Australia, the nation’s highest court of appeal, ordered that Cardinal Pell’s conviction on child sex abuse charges be overturned.

The High Court unanimously ruled in favour of Cardinal Pell’s appeal, deciding that he should be acquitted of all five of the charges laid against him.

Here’s the crux of the High Court’s summary judgment:

The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.

The ruling means that Cardinal Pell will walk free, more than a year after he was placed behind bars.

This means Cardinal Pell is innocent, correct?

Not precisely.

The High Court did not find Cardinal Pell guilty, nor did they find him innocent. Instead, the High Court acquitted him of the charges, which is another thing entirely.

It’s a bit complex, but High Court did not make a judgment on whether Cardinal Pell committed the offences, per se. They ruled that the jury of the 2018 trial should have, realistically, held reasonable doubts about his alleged offending.

And, if you hold reasonable doubts that someone committed an offence, you cannot find them guilty in a criminal court.

Reasonable doubt: it’s a very, very, high bar to clear. Especially in cases which pivot on the testimony of a single living complainant, no matter how sincere and forthright a jury finds them to be.

The High Court also commented on the Victorian Court of Appeal’s earlier majority verdict, saying their “analysis failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place”.

It’s a remarkable win for Cardinal Pell. Truly, truly remarkable.

What has Cardinal Pell said about today’s decision?

In a statement obtained by the Herald Sun, Cardinal Pell said a “serious injustice” had been “remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.”

The cleric said he holds “no ill will” towards his accuser.

“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not,” he added.

“The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis of justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.”

What are survivors saying?

One of the choirboys did not live to see the matter go to trial, nor today’s overturned verdict. His father, however, has watched the entire matter unfold.

Lisa Flynn, National Practice Leader at Shine Lawyers, is representing the choirboy’s father in a separate civil suit against the Catholic Church (more on that later).

According to Flynn, the father is “currently 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,” Flynn said.

Flynn said the man is “heartbroken” for the surviving complainant, who was “ultimately let down by a legal process that forced him to relive his pain and trauma for no benefit.”

Speaking for herself, Flynn said the successful appeal “suggests that even if survivors of child sexual abuse report their abuse, convince police to lay charges, convince the prosecution to pursue those charges, convince a jury to convict the accused, convince a Court of Appeal to uphold the jury’s decision, they can still be denied justice by the country’s highest court.”

What happens now?

While today’s decision marks a definitive end for this particular criminal matter, The Sydney Morning Herald reports Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church remain targets of civil lawsuits — like the one pursued by the deceased choirboy’s father.

“We will continue to pursue a civil claim on behalf of our client despite the High Court’s ruling today,” Flynn said in her statement, adding that civil cases are not required to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Huge tracts of the 2017 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse may eventually be released to the public, after fears those findings could prejudice “current or future criminal or civil proceedings.”

Elsewhere, Cardinal Pell’s supporters will celebrate today’s landmark decision.

Others will feel very differently.


Help is available.

If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.

If you’d like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.

Image: Vandeville Eric / ABACA / AP