Former prime minister John Howard has spoken to reporters this morning after news emerged yesterday that he provided a glowing character reference for George Pell following the cardinal’s conviction for child sexual abuse.

As reported by The Australian, Howard said it would be “inappropriate” for him to make any further comments on the matter, but that Pell continues to “declare his innocence”.

Allow the justice system to take its course. A conviction has been made. He continues to declare his innocence and has lodged an appeal. In those circumstances, it is not appropriate for me to make any comment at all and I do not intend to do so.

There was widespread outrage yesterday after the full text of Howard’s character reference for Pell was published in the press. It’s worth remembering that this was submitted after the cardinal’s guilty verdict on five charges related to child sexual abuse was announced.

Ten people gave character references for Pell, including Howard.

“These people love him; none of them believe he is capable of these offences,” Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter said.

Here’s the full text:

This character reference is provided in the context of charges being dealt with in relation to Cardinal Pell.

I am aware he has been convicted of those charges; that an appeal against the conviction has been lodged and that he maintains his innocence in respect of these charges. None of these matters alter my opinion of the Cardinal.

I have known Cardinal Pell for approximately 30 years. We first became acquainted when he was, I think, an Assistant Bishop in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Inevitably we became better known to each other after he became Archbishop of Melbourne and, later still, Archbishop of Sydney.

Cardinal Pell is a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character. Strength and sincerity have always been features of his personality. I have always found him to be lacking hypocrisy and cant. In his chosen vocation he has frequently displayed much courage and held to his values and beliefs, irrespective of the prevailing wisdom of the time.

Cardinal Pell is a lively conversationalist who maintains a deep and objective interest in contemporary social and political issues.

It is my view that he has dedicated his life to his nation and his church.

While not outright stating that he believes Pell to be innocent of the crimes he has been convicted for, Howard joins a chorus of conservative politicians and commentators who have challenged the court’s verdict in various ways. Tony Abbott added his take to the fray yesterday too, giving a garbled statement on radio vaguely defending the disgraced cardinal.

Pell is set to be sentenced in March.