Cardinal George Pell has been freed from jail after Australia’s highest court overturned his conviction for child sexual abuse.
The former Vatican treasurer, 78, was the most senior Catholic figure ever jailed for such crimes.
In 2018, a jury found he abused two boys in Melbourne in the 1990s.
But the High Court of Australia quashed that verdict on Tuesday, bringing an immediate end to Cardinal Pell’s six-year jail sentence.
The Australian cleric had maintained his innocence since he was charged by police in June 2017.
His case rocked the Catholic Church, where he had been one of the Pope’s most senior advisers.
A full bench of seven judges ruled unanimously in Cardinal Pell’s favour, finding the jury had not properly considered all the evidence presented at the trial.
It was the cardinal’s final legal challenge, after his conviction was upheld by a lower court last year.
“I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice,” Cardinal Pell said in a statement after the decision. He had served more than 400 days of his sentence and cannot be retried on the charges.
He was released from Victoria’s Barwon Prison shortly after midday local time (02:00 GMT) and driven to a Carmelite Monastery in Melbourne, local media said.
Why was Pell jailed?
In December 2018, a jury found him guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in private rooms of St Patrick’s Cathedral in the mid-90s – when the cleric was Archbishop of Melbourne.
The convictions included one count of sexual penetration and four counts of committing indecent acts.
The trial heard testimony from a man alleged to be the sole surviving victim. Dozens of other witnesses provided alibis and other evidence.
Cardinal Pell appealed against the verdict in Victoria’s Court of Appeal last year, but three judges upheld the decision by a 2-1 majority.
Why did his appeal succeed this time?
The cardinal argued that the jury, and previous appeal judges, had relied too heavily on the “compelling” evidence of the alleged victim.
The cleric’s lawyers didn’t seek to discredit that testimony, but rather argued that the jury had not properly considered other evidence.
The High Court agreed, ruling that other testimonies had introduced “a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place”.
“The jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt,” said the court in its summary judgement.