A bombshell decision by Australia’s high court will reverberate around the world, and especially in the Catholic Church and Vatican. A unanimous decision overturned a child-molestation conviction against Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ former finance minister at the Vatican, immediately and permanently freeing him from prison. Pell offered words of forgiveness and empathy for victims of sex abuse, but as always insisted he was innocent of those charges:

The court ruled 7-0 that the jury should have entertained significant reasonable doubt about the charges after reviewing all evidence and testimony. Pell’s conviction was largely based on testimony about decades-old allegations, some of which didn’t quite fit with the circumstances at the time. That may not be the same as a declaration of innocence, but it does mean that prosecutors can’t try Pell again for the same charges:

The High Court found there was reasonable doubt surrounding the testimony of the witness, now the father of a young family aged in his 30s, who said Pell had abused him and another 13-year-old choirboy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the late 1990s. …

A judge and lawyers had urged two juries in 2018 to try Pell on the evidence and not on his senior position in the church’s flawed responses to clergy abuse in Australia. The first trial ended in a jury deadlock and the second unanimously convicted him on all charges.

A number of analysts wondered about that issue. During Pell’s trial, the defense put forward a fairly compelling argument that the alleged molestation could not have occurred where the accusers claimed because of the manner in which the church was laid out, plus they challenged the testimony on grounds of time and vagueness. A lower appellate court ruled there was sufficient evidence for conviction, although the dissent in the ruling accused the court of trying to force Pell to prove his innocence rather than dealing with the holes in the case against him. This ruling, and especially its unanimous character, comes as a big surprise.

Pell’s claiming vindication after this ruling, but more may come out soon — not so much about allegations of abuse by Pell, but about his conduct as archbishop when other priests were accused of it:

Pell’s record on managing clergy abuse could come under further public scrutiny, with Australian Attorney General Christian Porter responding to the verdict by announcing he will consider releasing a redacted section of a report on institutional responses to child molesting.

Pell gave evidence by video link from Rome in 2016 to a royal commission, Australia’s highest level of inquiry, about his time as a church leader in Melbourne and his hometown of Ballarat.

The royal commission found in its 2017 report that the Melbourne Archdiocese had ignored or covered up allegations of child abuse by seven priests to protect the church’s reputation and avoid scandal.

The royal commission was critical of Pell’s predecessor in Melbourne, Archbishop Frank Little, who died in 2008. It made no findings against Pell, saying then that it would not publish information that could “prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings.”

Nor is that Pell’s only peril. The Vatican welcomed the ruling last night and praised Pell for having “waited for the truth to be ascertained,” but this might not be their last word on the matter. The Holy See has jurisdiction over Pell too, and it had pointedly refrained on investigating him while Australia’s legal process remained in action. Now that their high court has precluded any more legal threat over these allegations, the Vatican might take up their own probe into Pell.

Canon law expert Ed Condon doesn’t think it will result in a trial, but the Vatican has to at least close the loop:

While Pell’s criminal trials in Australia are now at an end, the same accusations which saw him first convicted, then denied appeal, then acquitted, must now be addressed by the Church’s own legal process. That canonical process, on hold while the Australian justice system ran its course, can now begin.

While many of Pell’s supporters might consider any further legal ordeal for the cardinal to be unnecessary, even cruel, Vatican efforts to restore faith in its ability to handle accusations of sexual abuse fully and fairly – no exceptions – mean that there will have to be some kind of canonical process.

The necessity for some canonical process to formally address the accusations against Pell does not, however, mean it need be lengthy. While the pope alone is competent to determine how a case against a cardinal proceeds, in practice Francis is almost sure to depute the process to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – something provided for in the motu proprio Sacromentorum sanctitatis tutela. Unless there is pressing evidence on both sides of the case, the CDF rarely convenes a full trial – especially when the matter has received a full litigation in a secular court. …

Whatever process is followed, almost no one expects a canonical court in Rome to find Pell guilty, given the overwhelming evidence he has now presented in his own defense.

Victoria Court of Appeal judge Mark Weinberg noted, in his opinion dissenting from the decision to uphold Pell’s conviction, that the cardinal had been made to prove his innocence beyond reasonable doubt; an inverted burden of proof many observers feel he cleared.

Victims of abuse, and especially of clergy abuse, will see this as a setback. Those who worry that we are re-staging the Salem witchcraft trials will see this as a return to the norms that Condon and the high court champion here. Not everyone who gets accused is guilty, and the near-impossibility of proving a negative is the reason the burden of proof lies with the state and not with the defense. We keep forgetting this basic principle of justice in a free society, in places like the US Senate in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or in show trials in dictatorships.

Pell’s liberation may or may not be justice. However, the strengthening of that principle will surely mean a strengthening of justice for the rest of us.