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Pope Francis decries ‘unjust sentences’ after cardinal George Pell acquitted | Australia news

Pope Francis has recalled the “persecution that Jesus suffered” and has prayed for those who suffer “unjust sentences” hours after Australia’s highest court acquitted cardinal George Pell of child sexual abuse.

The court in Melbourne quashed convictions that Pell sexually assaulted two choirboys in the 1990s, allowing the 78-year-old former Vatican economy minister to walk free from jail, ending the most high-profile case of alleged historical sex abuse to rock the Roman Catholic church.

At the start of mass, celebrated at his lodgings at Santa Marta on Tuesday morning and livestreamed, Pope Francis said: “I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence [against them].”

The Vatican also welcomed the acquittal, praising Pell in its first official statement for having “waited for the truth to be ascertained”. The Vatican said it 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”.

Francis did not mention Pell by name at mass, but compared the suffering of those inflicted with “unjust sentences” to the way Jewish community elders persecuted Jesus with “obstinacy and rage even though he was innocent”.

Each morning at the mass, Francis chooses an intention for the service, such as remembering the poor, the homeless or the sick. In recent weeks, the pope’s intentions for nearly all of his daily masses have been related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The pope also tweeted about the persecution of Jesus, without making specific reference to Pell. “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.

“Let us pray together today for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because someone had it in for them.”

Pell was number three in the Vatican hierarchy, in charge of the Holy See’s finances and of rooting out corruption.

His five-year term as Vatican treasurer expired just days before he was sentenced in February last year. Pope Francis had removed him from his inner council of advisers two months earlier.

The Vatican said last year that it would wait for the judicial process to be exhausted before taking any further action.

Pell is three years past the age at which bishops and Vatican officials normally hand in their resignation, is not expected to return to a Holy See job.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Vatican’s disciplinary department – is expected now to consider the accusations against Pell and could order a canonical trial. But it would be an extraordinary turn of events if the outcome was different to the ruling of the appeal court in Melbourne.

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,” she said.

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.

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