Earlier, Judge Lerve said even the gravest of suspicions cannot amount to proof beyond reasonable doubt.
Judge Lerve said that in one of the police-recorded conversations between the priest and the alleged victim last year Fr Neru “all but admitted the conduct, it seems to me.”
The verdict was welcomed by St Joseph’s Leeton Parish Council chairman Rob Houghton.
“Ultimately it is good news for Fr Neru,” he said.
“However, it is a massive shame that he has had his name dragged through the mud.”
Mr Houghton said the St Joseph’s parish in Leeton had been shocked when Fr Neru was initially charged late last year.
“It has always been innocent until proven guilty and that was the philosophy the parishioners took,” he said.
“It’s important now that we not just as a parish, but as a community get behind Fr Neru.
“We need to make him feel welcome again.
“Unfortunately he’s going to have a bit of a road ahead of him in terms of people trusting him again, but as we have found today there was no need for his name to be dragged through the mud.”
Mr Houghton’s thoughts were echoed by fellow St Joseph’s parishioner Vanessa Pages, who is also involved in White Balloon Day in Leeton each year.
White Balloon Day aims to to help educate, empower and protect Australian children from sexual assault.
“Fr Neru has been a good friend of ours for some time, so we, like everyone else, were shocked when he was charged,” Mrs Pages said.
“We were praying for the truth to come to light and praying he would be acquitted.
“I’m certain he would be feeling very relieved. We will be getting in contact with him, certainly.
“It does appear to be the case in today’s world that the younger priests are having to pay for the sins of those older ones (regarding alleged child abuse within the Catholic church).
“It is good news he has been found not guilty.”
RIVERINA Catholic priest Father Neru Leuea has been acquitted of raping a 10-year-old girl more than a decade ago, but a shadow still hangs over his future, with District Court judge Gordon Lerve describing the priest as a “particularly unimpressive witness who gave a number of unresponsive answers”.
The priest cannot return to parish duties until after a review of the case by the NSW Ombudsman
Father Neru, as he is called, pleaded not guilty to sexual intercourse without consent with the girl at Griffith between October 20, 2002, and January 31, 2003.
It was alleged he snuck into the girl’s bedroom in the early hours of the morning while he was at the house for a party and had intercourse with the youngster.
Handing down his verdict in Wagga District Court on Monday afternoon after a judge-alone trial, Judge Lerve said he found the matter deeply troubling.
But he said, ultimately, he could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that an offence had occurred within the timeframe contained in the Crown’s indictment.
Fr Neru was stood down as parish priest of St Mel’s in Narrandera and as police chaplain immediately following his arrest last November.
A statement issued by the Wagga Catholic Diocese on Monday afternoon said Fr Neru would remain in this status pending an administrative review of the case, which will be overseen by the NSW Ombudsman.
“The safety and well-being of all children and vulnerable people is paramount to the Catholic Diocese of Wagga,” the statement read.
Fr Neru sat in chair behind his Griffith solicitor, Simon MacKenzie, while Judge Lerve read out his judgment, lasting more than 90 minutes.
After being acquitted, he sat unmoved in the chair for a few minutes before leaving the courtroom and hugging a band of supporters, some of them tearful.
More than 30 people were in the courtroom for the verdict, including at least five other priests.
Asked if he would like to make a statement to the media, Fr Neru said he would like to make a statement about the media.
He then had a conference with Mr MacKenzie and emerged rejecting further requests for an interview.
Fr Neru, ordained in December 2002, has been a priest at Griffith, Leeton and Narrandera.
He completed his priestly studies at the Vianney College seminary in Wagga