Cardinal George Pell will learn of the High Court of Australia’s ruling in Brisbane today from Barwon Prison in Victoria. Picture: Andy Brownbill/AP
Cardinal George Pell will learn of the High Court of Australia’s ruling in Brisbane today from Barwon Prison in Victoria. Picture: Andy Brownbill/AP

George Pell to walk free from jail

Cardinal George Pell will immediately be released from prison after the High Court determined his child sexual abuse convictions should be quashed.

The most senior Catholic in the world to be convicted of child sexual abuse today learnt his final appeal bid to the High Court had been a success.

The full bench of seven judges were unanimous in their decision.

The judgment was handed down at 10am in Brisbane on Tuesday with just three people reportedly sitting in the public gallery and four standing by the door to hear Chief Justice Susan Kiefel AC say Pell would be let free from Barwon Prison in Victoria.

Pell, 78, was convicted in December 2018 of raping a 13-year-old choirboy and molesting his friend after a Sunday Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996.

He has maintained his innocence since being confronted with the allegations by Victoria Police in Rome four years ago, but a jury of 12 and Victoria's Court of Appeal ruled otherwise.

Outside court in Melbourne in May 2018. Picture: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP
Outside court in Melbourne in May 2018. Picture: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP

Pell's lawyers argued the jury was wrong and the appeal court majority made a mistake.

The appeal bid was based on two grounds - firstly that Chief Justice Ann Ferguson and President Chris Maxwell made an error in requiring Pell to prove the offending was "impossible" in order to raise reasonable doubt. Secondly, his lawyers argued the judges erred in concluding the guilty verdicts were not unreasonable, because of findings there was reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

"Today, the High Court granted special leave to appeal against a decision of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria and unanimously allowed the appeal," the Pell v The Queen 2020 judgment states.

"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."

 

Pell has spent more than 400 days behind bars since being taken into custody last February.

His lawyers had urged the High Court to quash his convictions and release him immediately.

Prosecutors, led by Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd QC, wanted his conviction to stand.

A third outcome was also possible, raised by the judges themselves. That could have involved the initial Victorian appeal decision being reconsidered, either by the High Court or sent back to the Court of Appeal.

Supporters of George Pell hold up a crucifix while singing prayers outside the High Court of Australia in Canberra last month. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP
Supporters of George Pell hold up a crucifix while singing prayers outside the High Court of Australia in Canberra last month. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP

TIMELINE OF THE GEORGE PELL CASE

1996

* Pell appointed Archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II

* Pell sexually abuses two 13-year-old choirboys after a Sunday solemn mass at St Patrick's Cathedral, according to a later jury finding.

* A second indecent act is committed by Pell against one of the choirboys in a corridor at the cathedral, the same jury found.

2001-2014

* Pell served as Archbishop of Sydney, 2001-2014.

* He is made a cardinal in 2003.

2016

* The Herald-Sun reports Pell is being investigated by Victoria Police's Sano taskforce for "multiple offences" committed while he was a priest in Ballarat in the 1970s and Archbishop of Melbourne.

* Pell says the allegations are "without foundation and utterly false".

* Under Vatican rules, Pell gives Pope Francis his resignation on his 75th birthday, as is customary. It is not accepted.

* Victoria Police officers travel to Rome to interview Pell over the abuse claims. He voluntarily participates in the interview.

2017

JUNE 2017

* Pell is charged with multiple counts of historical child sexual offences.

* He denies the charges and vows to clear his name.

* Pell takes leave from his Vatican finance chief role to fight the charges.

JULY 2017

* Pell returns to Australia.

* He hires top barrister Robert Richter QC.

* Supporters set up a fund to help Pell fight the charges.

2018

MARCH 2018

* Prosecutors drop one of the charges against Pell.

* A month-long committal hearing begins to determine if Pell will face trial.

* Prosecutors withdraw more charges.

* Mr Richter claims police conducted a "get Pell operation" and accuses Melbourne magistrate Belinda Wallington of bias. She refuses to disqualify herself from the case.

MAY 2018

* Ms Wallington orders Pell stand trial on some charges but throws out others.

* Pell formally pleads "not guilty".

* Two trials are ordered, separating the 1970s and 1990s allegations.

AUGUST 2018

* The 1990s "cathedral trial" begins in the Victorian County Court in Melbourne.

* Pell pleads not guilty again to one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four of indecent acts with a child, over incidents involving two 13-year-old choirboys at St Patrick's Cathedral in 1996.

SEPTEMBER 2018

* The jury is discharged, unable to reach a verdict following a week of deliberation. Some jurors weep.

NOVEMBER 2018

* A retrial begins. The jury members aren't told of the previous hung jury.

DECEMBER 2018

* Pell is found guilty on all charges by an unanimous jury.

* Mr Richter says Pell will appeal.

* Suppression orders prevent Australian media reporting the verdict but it spreads through international media within hours.

2019

FEBRUARY 2019

* Hearings begin ahead of the second trial. Prosecutors drop another charge.

* An appeal is filed against the cathedral trial conviction.

* A County Court judge deems vital evidence inadmissible.

* Prosecutors withdraw all remaining charges against Pell and drop a second trial over allegations Pell indecently assaulted boys in Ballarat in the 1970s when he was a parish priest.

* Pell is taken into custody on February 27 as the plea hearing begins.

MARCH 2019

* Pell is sentenced by County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd to a maximum of six years in prison. He must serve at least three years and eight months in jail before being eligible for parole. He will be a registered sex offender for life.

JUNE 2019

* Court of Appeal considers Pell's application to challenge his conviction on June 5 and 6.

AUGUST 2019

* Court of Appeal rejects Pell's appeal in a 2-1 decision, meaning he will remain behind bars.

SEPTEMBER 2019

* Pell lodges a special leave to appeal application with the High Court

NOVEMBER 2019

* Two High Court judges refer Pell's application to the full court to hear appeal arguments.

MARCH 2020

* Full bench of the High Court hears Pell's appeal arguments.

APRIL 2020

* High Court hands down its judgment on Pell's final appeal bid, quashing his child sexual abuse conviction. He will walk free from Barwon Prison in Victoria.

Originally published as George Pell to walk free from jail

A brass plaque of George Pell on the outer walls of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Picture: John Grainger
A brass plaque of George Pell on the outer walls of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. Picture: John Grainger

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