After Pell acquittal, pope compares 'unjust sentences' to persecution of Jesus

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Just hours after Australia’s highest court threw out the sex abuse conviction of the Vatican’s former treasurer, Pope Francis offered his morning Mass for all those who suffer from unjust sentences, which he compared to the persecution of Jesus.

The court’s ruling quashed convictions that Cardinal George Pell sexually assaulted the two choir boys in the 1990s. It allowed the 78-year-old to walk free from jail, ending the case of the most senior figure accused in the global scandal of historical sex abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church.

“I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer an unjust sentence resulting from intransigence,” Francis said, speaking before the start of the Mass. Francis did not mention Pell, the cardinal who was put in charge of Vatican finances by Francis in 2014.

Francis compared the suffering of those inflicted with unjust sentences today to the persecution of Jesus.

“In these days of Lent, we have seen the persecution that Jesus suffered and how the doctors of the law raged against him and he was judged with intransigence, under intransigence, even though he was innocent,” the pope said.

The pope chooses an intention for Mass each day before leading the service in his residence. In recent weeks, the pope’s intentions for nearly all of his daily Masses have been related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pell, a polarising figure in Australia for his conservative views, remained a cardinal but lost his treasurer role in the run-up to becoming the highest ranked Catholic official worldwide to be jailed for child sex offences.

He was serving a six-year sentence on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of an indecent act with a child under 16, which the plaintiff said took place when Pell was archbishop of the city of Melbourne.

The seven judges of the High Court agreed unanimously that the jury in the cardinal’s trial “ought to have entertained a doubt” about his guilt, ordering his conviction be quashed.

“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,” Pell said in a statement shortly before he was driven away from the maximum security Barwon Prison near Melbourne.

The Vatican has welcomed the Australian court’s ruling, praising Pell for having “waited for the truth to be ascertained”.

A statement said the Vatican had always had confidence in Australian judicial authorities and reaffirmed the Holy See’s “commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors”. It noted that Pell had always maintained his innocence.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said it was “dismayed and heartbroken” by the verdict. “This is a disappointing ruling that only exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel,” SNAP Australia said in a statement.

An investigation of Pell by the Vatican was mooted at the time of his conviction but never formally begun.

Francis appointed Pell to overhaul the Vatican’s vast finances in 2014. At 78, three years past the age at which bishops and Vatican officials normally hand in their resignation, Pell is not expected to return to a Holy See job.

Pell had been on a leave of absence from the post, whose formal title is Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy, since 2017. Last year, the pope named a successor, Spanish Jesuit priest Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves.

Additional reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Raissa Kasolowsky