The father of one of the former choirboys, whose son died as an adult in 2014 having never contacted police, said he was shocked by the ruling.
“It makes me feel like I have no confidence in the legal system in this country,” he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
“For a man to be convicted by a jury and then have his appeal quashed [by the Court of Appeal], and then go to the High Court and have the whole thing thrown out, that’s incredible.”
The son died from an accidental heroin overdose in 2014 at age 31. Wednesday will mark the sixth anniversary of his death.
The surviving former choirboy contacted police in 2015 and gave evidence at Cardinal Pell’s trial on what he said happened to both him and his friend.
The father said he felt sorry for his son’s friend and what Tuesday’s ruling would mean for him, and for other complainants in unrelated sex-assault cases.
“He’d be devastated. He’s not been believed,” the man said.
“And what’s that going to do for other [complainants], that’s what I’m worried about. There’s thousands of people out there who have been too scared to come forward and this is going to frighten them off.”
Despite those fears, the man had a message for anyone considering coming forward.
“Go for it. Persist, persist, persist. Tell your story.”
The surviving choirboy declined to comment but his lawyer might address the media on Wednesday.
Cardinal Pell’s release brought measured relief to his supporters.
In a letter to clerics and lay people, Melbourne Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli said the court’s decision marked the end of “an intense and painful time for all those personally involved, those who have experienced abuse, and for the Catholic community in Melbourne”.
Archbishop Comensoli acknowledged Cardinal Pell’s accuser had the right to report his allegations but noted the cardinal had steadfastly maintained his innocence.
“This decision means the Cardinal was wrongly convicted and imprisoned and he is now free to live his life peaceably within the community,” Archbishop Comensoli said.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott was also restrained.
When asked about his support of the senior cleric, Mr Abbott said: “That’s as it’s been and as it will be, but, as I said, today is just a day to let the High Court judgment speak for itself.”
Advocates for sex-assault victims had believed the original guilty verdict would empower complainants in other cases to come forward.
Now, like the dead choirboy’s father, they are concerned about what effect the latest ruling will have.
Cathy Kezelman, the president of the Blue Knot Foundation National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, said her organisation was worried about the indirect consequences of the judgment.
The Centre Against Sexual Assault’s convenor, Karen Hogan, said her organisation had fielded calls from people who were struggling to cope with their own cases of past trauma.
Chrissie Foster, whose daughters Emma and Katie were raped by parish priest Kevin O’Donnell while at primary school in the 1980s, was concerned other complainants might reach the conclusion “Don’t bother”.
“It’s a waste of time. Is this setting a precedent? Maybe it will make accusers more determined … but these are damaged people. For them to get up and fight, it’s not as easy for them as it is for you and I,” Ms Foster said.
“They are going to shy away from it.”
Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, tweeted: “Recovery from sexual abuse in childhood can be complex and can take time. For many people, particularly those who have experienced trauma, today’s news may bring a range of emotions. It’s important to know that support is available.”
Victoria Police said it remained committed to investigating sexual assault offences, no matter how many years had passed.
The Office of Public Prosecutions declined to comment.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue 1300 224 636.
Adam Cooper joined The Age in 2011 after a decade with AAP. Email or tweet Adam with your news tips.
Bianca Hall is a senior reporter for The Age. She has previously worked in the Canberra bureau as immigration correspondent, Sunday political correspondent and deputy editor.