A court in Paris has overturned the child sex convictions against six people, including a priest, after one of France's most embarrassing judicial fiascos.
The acquittal in the Paris appeals court clears the way for hefty compensation claims by the accused, and comes a day after an unprecedented apology by a leading state prosecutor who told the six their trial had been a "veritable catastrophe".
An official inquiry has been called into how the case was mishandled by Justice Minister Pascal Clement, who apologised over what he described as a "disaster".
The case first shocked France due to the brutality of the claims, but later because a series of mistakes meant the accused spent long periods in detention despite being innocent.
Most of the six accused wept as the court announced the verdict. Each of the five men and one woman had made the same statement to the court, declaring: "I am innocent, Your Honour".
"We can barely walk. It's finally over," said Daniel Legrand, 24, one of those cleared.
"Goodbye prison. We are free," said Alain Marecaux, a notary who lost his two houses and business after being wrongly accused and detained.
Seven other people had already been acquitted after Myriam Badaoui admitted she had falsely accused the 13 of being involved in a paedophilia ring to shift some of the blame from herself.
Sentences given to Badaoui, her husband and another married couple remain, over the repeated rape of her four children and other acts at her home in northern France between 1995 and 2000.
The case has raised troubling questions about the willingness of social services and psychiatric experts to accept uncorroborated allegations made by young children, and about the power given to lone examining magistrates under the French judicial system.
The appellants were among 17 people from the northern town of Outreau who went on trial in May 2004 after a three-year probe into an alleged paedophile ring.
Seven were acquitted and 10 were convicted.
Of those 10, six -- including a married couple and a priest -- continued to protest their innocence but were sentenced to jail terms of up to seven years for rape and sexual attacks on young children.
With those six now also cleared, it means charges against all but the two couples at the centre of the affair have now collapsed.
Compensation is expected to run into hundreds of thousands of euros for each defendant.
Mr Clement also vowed to punish magistrates who made clear errors in the case and presented his apologies "to all those acquitted and their families."
At the original trial, the case for the prosecution appeared to fall apart after the key witness Badaoui broke down in tears and admitted lying to incriminate most of the other defendants.
At the three-week appeal hearing for the six, the state deliberately failed to renew its case -- clear recognition that they were victims of a miscarriage of justice.
In a dramatic intervention on the eve of Thursday's verdict, Yves Bot, the senior prosecutor at the Paris appeals court, expressed "regrets" and promised reforms of judicial procedures.
In all, 18 children were alleged to have been raped over five years, but lawyers now agree most of their witness statements were the result of pressure from adults.
What once appeared to be a complex network of abuse was in fact limited to two homes.
There is particular criticism of Fabrice Burgaud, the young investigating magistrate who persisted with the case despite growing doubts.
He is alleged to have pressured defendants into confessions and willfully ignored contradictory evidence.
Among the reforms under consideration as a result of the judicial disaster is the appointment of a second examining magistrate in sensitive cases.
Many of the children who were named in the investigation remain with foster families despite the collapse of the case against their parents.