NEW YORK — Australia’s highest court unanimously acquitted Cardinal George Pell of child abuse on Tuesday, marking a stunning turn of events for the 78-year-old prelate who had previously been the most senior Catholic official to be found guilty of sexual abuse.

The reverse decision comes after Pell was convicted in a jury trial in December 2018 and sentenced to six years in prison last March. His appeal to the Supreme Court of Victoria was rejected last August in a 2-1 ruling upholding his original conviction.

RELATED: Australian court rejects Pell’s appeal and upholds abuse conviction

The decision to quash his conviction was announced by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of Australia’s superior court, speaking on behalf of the seven justices who heard his appeal over a two-day period last month.

“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place,” wrote Kiefel in a one and a half paged summary released in lieu of the full decision.

Due to the restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision was delivered to a nearly empty courtroom in Brisbane where Kiefel sits. Pell remained at Barwon Prison near Melbourne where he has been held and is expected to be released later on Wednesday.

Unlike past court appearances, neither supporters of the cardinal nor clergy sex abuse survivors were on hand for the occasion due to the current restrictions on social gatherings.

Pell, who has been one of the most powerful Church leaders in the English speaking Catholic world, has spent over 400 days in prison following his initial conviction.

In June 2017, Pell was charged by Australian police for “historical sexual assault offenses,” for crimes dating back to December 1996 when he was the newly minted archbishop of Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city.

He was accused and convicted of having orally raped a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently exposing himself in front of another choirboy inside the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Following an initial trial that lasted for four weeks last August and September that resulted in a hung jury, a second trial last November resulted in a unanimous guilty verdict.

During both trials the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of one of the choirboys who is now in his thirties. The other alleged victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014. Pell did not testify at either trial and has consistently maintained his innocence.

Much of the latest appeal to the High Court centered on whether Pell would have had time to abuse the two choirboys in the five or six minutes that the prosecution has argued that he would have been alone with them in the sacristy of the cathedral following Sunday Mass.

His defense team argued that it would have been nearly impossible for Pell to have been alone with the boys and would have marked a deviation from his usual routine of greeting mass goers on the cathedral steps, as well as typically being accompanied by at least one assistant.

On Wednesday, the superior court said they agreed, noting that 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.”

Pell’s case has gripped Australia, along with much of the Catholic world, over the last three years with supporters of the cardinal arguing that he has been scapegoated for the broader clergy abuse scandals or punished for his traditional moral views and his critics portraying him as representative of an institution that has regularly promoted and privileged leaders guilty of grave sexual misconduct.

Pell has been back in Australia since 2017, having taken a leave of absence from a post at the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, where he was tapped in 2014 by Pope Francis to serve as its prefect.

In that capacity, he also served on Francis’s advisory council of cardinals known then as the “C-9.” In December 2018, the Vatican confirmed that Francis had sent Pell, along with two other members of the C-9, letters marking the end of their service to the advisory council.

As Pell’s criminal case progressed, the Vatican has consistently maintained that they respected the Australian justice system but would wait until the appeals process was fully complete before rendering their own judgments on Pell.

“While reiterating its trust in the Australian justice system, the Holy See acknowledges the decision of Australia’s High Court to accept Card. George Pell’s request of appeal, aware that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence,” said Matteo Bruni, the director of the Holy See’s Press Office in a statement in November. “At this time, the Holy See reaffirms once again its closeness to those who have suffered because of sexual abuse on the part of members of the clergy.”

Pell, who has been one of the most prominent, and at times polarizing, Catholic figures in the English-speaking Catholic world over the last three decades, remains a member of the College of Cardinals. Following his release from prison, he is not expected to return to Rome in a formal capacity.

In a brief statement following the court’s decision, Pell said that he holds no ill will toward his accuser and that “the only basis for justice is truth.”

“My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church,” he wrote. “The point was whether I committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the head of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in a statement sought to strike a balance between acknowledging Pell’s discharge, while at the same time extending an overture to victims of clergy abuse.

“Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process,” he said. “We also recognize that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others.”

“Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion,” he wrote. “The result today does not change the Church’s unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.”

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of the Sydney archdiocese, which Pell himself led for 13 years, in an April 7 statement welcomed Pell’s acquittal, saying, “The Cardinal has always maintained his innocence and today’s decision confirms his conviction was wrong.” 

He acknowledged the Catholic Church’s past failings in handling clerical sexual abuse and noted that these failings have helped fuel public anger at the Church and its officials. But he also praised the judges hearing the case in Australia’s High Court for their “meticulous” review of the facts, and asked that the pursuit of Pell “that brought us to this point now cease.” 

“This has not just been a trial of Cardinal Pell, but also of our legal system and culture,” he said. “The Cardinal’s vindication today invites broader reflection on our system of justice, our commitment to the presumption of innocence, and our treatment of high-profile figures accused of crimes.” 

In a letter addressed to laity, priests and religious in his archdiocese, Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, where Pell himself was archbishop from 1996-2001, noted that Pell’s ongoing legal case has been “an intense and painful time for so many,” not only for those personally involved in the case, but also “those whose wounds of abuse have been re-opened and laid bare,” he said.  

Comensoli stressed that he respects the dignity of both the alleged victim in the case, referred to as “J”, and his right to take legal action, as well as Pell and his right to avail himself of the full scope of Australia’s judicial system, resulting in his acquittal.  

“The sole matter for examination in this case was whether Cardinal Pell committed certain despicable crimes, of which he has now been acquitted, and not about the broader question of how Church authorities have dealt with sexual abuse,” Comensoli said.  

“Yet, I fully appreciate that people have seen in this case another emblematic story of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest,” he said, noting that “it has brought a deeper weariness of soul to people of faith.

Reaffirming his commitment to the protection of minors and to listening to victims of clergy sex abuse, Comensoli asked that his archdiocese join him in praying for “J”, for Pell, their families and all abuse survivors, while also working to “build a Church that is centered on God’s love for each person, with a special care and concern for the weakest, the most vulnerable, the most hurt.” 

This story has been updated to include statements from Pell, Coleridge, Fisher and Comensoli. 

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212