April 6 (UPI) -- Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church to be convicted of child sex abuse, was acquitted on Tuesday by the High Court of Australia.
The High Court said in its summary decision that it unanimously decided to grant Pell's appeal after finding his convicting jury failed to maintain doubt over his guilt.
"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 offenses for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place," the statement read.
Pell, 78, was released from prison later Tuesday where he was spending a six-year prison term for his December 2018 conviction on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 years and four charges of committing an act of indecency with or in the presence of a child under 16 years.
In a statement, Pell said the High Court's decision "remedied" the serious injustice he was suffering from his imprisonment.
"I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough," he said.
He said Tuesday's verdict was not a referendum on the Catholic Church nor on how church authorities in Australia have dealt with charges of pedophilia but only on the charges he was convicted of.
"The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not," the former adviser to Pope Francis said. "The only basis for long-term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth because justice means truth for all."
Rev. Anthony Fisher, the Archbishop of Syndey, said he welcomes "today's exoneration" of Pell, asking that further pursuit of litigation against him cease.
"This has not just been a trial of Cardinal Pell, but also of our legal system and culture," Fisher said in a statement. "The Cardinal's vindication today invites broader reflection on our system of justice, our commitment to the presumption of innocence and our treatment of high profile figures accused of crimes."
Meanwhile, David Andrew, premier of Victoria, said he has no comment on the verdict but that he stands with the victims of child sex abuse.
"I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you," he said in a statement.
Pell was convicted following a lengthy legal battle and during his second trial on the same charges after the first jury failed to agree on a verdict.
The charges stem from accusations that Pell had abused two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s while serving as Archbishop of Melbourne.
He was accused of revealing himself before two choirboys in 1996 and forcing one of them to perform oral sex on him while fondling the other after catching the two minors drinking sacramental wine.
Pell was convicted in March 2019 but his legal team argued against it on the grounds that the judges during his trial had wrongly put the responsibility on him to prove his innocence and that the verdict was unreasonable as it relied heavily on only one of the victim's testimony.
Of the two boys, only one filed a complaint against Pell. The other alleged victim died from a heroin overdose in 2014.
The High Court's Tuesday decision follows Pell appealing his convictions before the Court of Appeal in August, a request that was rejected. Pell then applied to the High Court in November.
"The High Court considered that, while the Court of Appeal majority assessed the evidence of the opportunity witnesses as leaving open the possibility that the complainant's account was correct, their honors' analysis failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant's guilt," the court said in its summary decision.
Lisa Flynn of the National Practice Leader at Shine Lawyers, which represents the father of the victim who died in a separate lawsuit against the Catholic Church, said their client was "gutted" by the court's decision and that he no longer has faith in the criminal justice system.
"He is furious the man he believes is responsible for sexually abusing his son was convicted by a unanimous jury only to have that decision overturned today allowing Goerge Pell to walk free from jail," Flynn said in a statement. "Our client says he is heartbroken for the surviving victim who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story but was ultimately let down by a legal process that forced him to relive his pain and trauma for no benefit."
Flynn said they will continue to pursue civil claim lawsuits against the Church in connection to the alleged abuse.