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Australian cardinal acquitted of all child abuse charges in shock ruling

Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves after being released from Barwon Prison near Anakie, some 70 kilometers west of Melbourne, on April 7, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

Australian Cardinal George Pell has been freed from jail after being acquitted by Australia’s highest court of charges of child abuse in a shock ruling.

Pell, who once was the third-most senior Catholic Church official and who fell from grace after revelations of historical child abuse emerged against him, was released from Barwon Prison near Anakie, some 70 kilometers west of Melbourne, on Tuesday after he was acquitted of charges following an appeal made last week.

The ex-Vatican treasurer and former close adviser to Pope Francis, had been sentenced to six years in prison last December on charges of sexually assaulting two choir boys under the age of 16 in the mid-1990s. He was the archbishop of Melbourne at the time and was the highest ranking Catholic official worldwide to be incarcerated for child sex offences.

Pell maintained his innocence throughout the prolonged court process.

The High Court ruling closed his case, and he cannot be retried on the charges.

The verdict, which came in the middle of the Catholic Holy Week, spurred strong reactions, mainly from the victims of abuse.

The father of one victims, whose son died from drug overdose in 2014, said through his lawyer that he was “in shock” and “furious” and “heartbroken.”

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it was “dismayed and heartbroken” by the outcome and expressed hope that the ruling would not dissuade other victims from reporting their own cases of abuse.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the High Court’s decision would be “welcomed by many” and “devastating for others.” The president of the conference asserted that the church would remain committed to “child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the High Court’s decision “must be respected.”

A few hours after the announcement of Pell’s acquittal, Pope Francis offered his morning Mass for those who have faced unfair condemnation. Previously, the Pope had refrained from providing any comments about Pell’s case until all legal procedures had been taken. He did not mention Pell by name but resorted to comparing the sufferings of Jesus to that of those sentenced in an unjust manner.

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