Cardinal Pell faces Australian court on sex abuse charges

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The most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis has appeared in an Australian court.

Wearing his clerical collar, George Pell attended a hearing at Melbourne Magistrates Court to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put him on trial.

The cardinal’s committal hearing before Magistrate Belinda Wallington is scheduled to take up to a month, with testimony of alleged victims to be suppressed from publication.

Pell arrived by car and was flanked by police and one of his lawyers, Paul Galbally, as he walked through a large group of media and into the court security screening area.

He remained silent as he entered.

He emptied his pockets before walking through a security metal detector and a security guarded frisked him in a routine procedure.

Other security guards ensured the public kept their distance from the 76-year-old cleric in the foyers of the seven-floor downtown court house in Australia’s second-largest city where he was once archbishop.

Pope Francis’ former finance minister was charged in June of last year with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria.

The details of the allegations against the cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offences — meaning the crimes that are alleged to have occurred decades ago.

The case places both the cardinal and the Pope in potentially perilous territory.

For Pell, the charges are a threat to his freedom, his reputation and his career.

For Francis, they are a threat to his credibility, given that he famously promised a “zero tolerance” policy for sex abuse in the church.

Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis’ decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place.

When Pell was promoted in 2014, he was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.

Pell has not yet entered a plea. But his lawyers have told the court that the cardinal plans to formally plead not guilty if he is ordered to stand trial.

One of the charges was withdrawn last week because the accuser had recently died.

Pell was silent throughout a 25-minute hearing that began with Prosecutor Mark Gibson amending dates and wording of charges.

The cardinal sat in the first of two rows of public seating behind his four lawyers in a cramped, wood-panelled courtroom in which reporters far outnumbered members of the public.

Gibson told Ms Wallington that complainants would give evidence by a video link. Defence lawyer Robert Richter said he did not object to the complainants not attending court in person.

Their testimony beginning in the afternoon is not open to the public or media.

Richter told Ms Wallington that given Pell’s age and medical condition, it was important that he be allowed to be accompanied in court by a supporter. Mr Richter did not detail Pell’s health.

Pell’s lawyers told the court last month that the allegations stemmed from publicity surrounding a national inquiry into child abuse three years ago.

His lawyer, Ruth Shann, said the first complainant approached police in 2015, 40 years after the alleged crimes, in response to media reports about Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Australia’s longest-running royal commission — which is the country’s highest form of inquiry — had been investigating since 2012 how the Catholic Church and other institutions responded to sexual abuse of children in Australia over 90 years. The inquiry issued its final report in December.

Pell testified to the inquiry in a video link from the Vatican in 2016 about his time as a priest and bishop in Australia. He did not attend in person because of medical problems.

Shann said the first complaint set off a chain of events with others making allegations against Pell. None had previously complained to anyone, Ms Shann said.

After years of alleged cover-ups and silence from the church over its paedophilia scandal, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a monumental shift in the way society is responding to the crisis.

So far, Francis has withheld judgment of Pell, saying he wants to wait for Australian justice to run its course.

And he did not force the cardinal to resign. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church’s economy ministry once the case is resolved.

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