Nearly three years after being charged with sexually abusing two then-teenage boys in the 1990s – for which he was sentenced to prison after a jury found him guilty – the former treasurer of the Vatican has been released from jail.
Cardinal George Bell was released from jail 7 April after the High Court of Australia upheld an appeal filed on his behalf, thus overturning what was expected to be a six-year prison term, BBC News reported. He served 13 months of the slated 72 months for which he was sentenced.
The panel of seven judges agreed unanimously that the prosecution ultimately failed to meet its burden of proof in establishing that the 78-year-old had indeed committed the actions for which he was formally accused, alleged to have taken place at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the mid-1990s. Bell claimed to be innocent at the time and has maintained that stance ever since then. When the reported incident transpired, Bell was Archbishop of Melbourne, appointed to the position in July 1996. Court papers and victim testimony claim Pell molested the two choir boys five months following his appointment.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference issues statement
In a statement issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge noted that the High Court's ruling might best be described as bittersweet.
"Today's outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal's innocence throughout this lengthy process," Coleridge explained. "We also recognise that the High Court's decision will be devastating for others. Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion."
Coleridge further stated the Catholic Church remains committed to ensuring children's safety and ongoing compassion and care for sexual assault and abuse survivors.
Original appeal was unsuccessful
This wasn't the defence team's first attempt at overturning the original conviction, which included one count of sexual penetration and four separate counts of committing indecent acts. BBC News reported that following the December 2018 verdict, Victoria's Court of Appeals took up Pell's case. But after hearing oral arguments for and against reversing the decision, the three-judge panel concluded that the original verdict was appropriate. However, the High Court was of the belief that the jury failed to include other pieces of relevant evidence suggesting there was reasonable doubt as to the former cleric's guilt.
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