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Cardinal Pell to walk free from Australian jail after winning appeal

Pell had steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout a high-profile and lengthy court process (AFP Photo/William WEST)

Brisbane (Australia) (AFP) - Cardinal George Pell's historic child sex abuse convictions were quashed by Australia's High Court on Tuesday, paving the way for the senior Catholic cleric's release from prison.

The 78-year-old was acquitted on all five counts of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s, when the court overturned earlier decisions of a jury and lower appeals court.

Pell had steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout a high-profile and lengthy court process.

A jury had convicted Pell of the offences in December 2018 before that decision was upheld by a three-judge panel in Victoria state's Court of Appeal last August, in a split 2-1 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 seven justices unanimously found the lower court had "failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant's guilt".

The prosecution's case had relied almost entirely on the testimony of Pell's surviving victim, who testified in a closed-door hearing that he had sexually assaulted them in a Melbourne cathedral while he was archbishop of the city.

The second choirboy -- who is not known to have ever spoken of the abuse -- died of a drug overdose in 2014. Neither man can be identified for legal reasons.

Pell's lawyers had argued there were "compounding improbabilities" in the case, including that Pell would not have had the time or opportunity to molest the boys in the priests' sacristy after Mass.

The High Court found that though the jury had "assessed the complainant's evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable", evidence from other witnesses required the jury "acting rationally" to have "entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant's guilt".

It is expected that Pell will walk free from a prison in Victoria state Tuesday after serving a year behind bars.

The former Vatican treasurer remains in the priesthood, but his future role in the Catholic Church remains unclear.

During the course of his trial, he was quietly removed from top Church bodies but the Vatican resisted launching an internal investigation.