Pope Francis decried “unjust” sentences against “innocent” people on Tuesday, hours after Australian Cardinal George Pell walked free from prison following the quashing of his conviction for child sex abuse.
Australia’s High Court overturned five counts of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s, bringing to an abrupt end the most high-profile paedophilia case faced by the Catholic Church.
The Vatican said it “welcomed” the court’s decision, pointing out that 78-year-old Pell had steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout a lengthy court process.
“In these days of Lent, we’ve been witnessing the persecution that Jesus underwent and how He was judged ferociously, even though He was innocent,” the pope said on Twitter.
“Let us pray together today for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because someone had it in for them,” he said, without making any direct reference to Pell.
As Pell left the jail where he has been held for the last year, he issued a statement saying that a “serious injustice” had been remedied by the court’s decision.
The Vatican “effectively got an early Easter present” with Pell’s release, Vatican expert John Allen wrote in the religious news site Cruxnow.com.
But Italian investigative journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, who has written about scandals at the Vatican, questioned the pope’s use of the word “innocent” in Tuesday’s tweet.
“Pell, without a doubt, protected paedophile priests, ignored victims, bought the silence of families. It is a serious mistake to make him a hero,” Fittipaldi said.
“The ‘innocent people’ are others”.
A jury convicted Pell in December 2018, and that decision was upheld by a three-judge panel in Victoria state’s Court of Appeal last August in a split verdict.
But Australia’s High Court found there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.
The former Vatican treasurer remains in the priesthood, but his future role in the church is still unclear.
Also unknown is whether the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will continue its own investigation into the charges made against Pell, which was put on hold during his appeal in Australia.
In the meantime, the Holy See said Tuesday it “reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors”.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said the court’s decision had been widely expected.
“Though distressing to many survivors, the decision doesn’t change the fact that the trial of the powerful cardinal was a watershed.”
Of the 78 Catholic bishops worldwide who have been publicly accused of child sexual abuse, very few have faced criminal charges, and fewer than 10 have been tried in a secular courtroom, she said.
“Yet that is where all of these cases belong. While messy and painful, a judicial process in a democratic society is immeasurably better than that of a Vatican tribunal, which keeps its proceedings secret,” she added.