Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell faces Australian court hearing on sex abuse charges

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 10:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 10:39pm

A frail-looking Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, was jeered when he arrived for a second court appearance on Friday as he fights sexual abuse charges that he strongly denies.

Flanked by police, the highest ranking Catholic official to face such offences attended the Melbourne Magistrates Court for the largely administrative hearing even though he was not required to do so. A small group of noisy placard-waving protesters were outside court. He did not react to the hecklers.

He is accused of multiple historical sexual offences, meaning that the alleged crimes occurred long ago.

Many of the details from Friday’s 20-minute hearing could be reported for legal reasons, but Magistrate Belinda Wallington said all witnesses would be allowed except five, meaning up to 50 could be called.

The case will return to court on March 5 for a committal hearing that is expected to last four weeks.

The exact details and nature of the allegations have not been made public, other than they involve “multiple complainants”.

The 76-year-old former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop, who returned from Rome in July to attend the first hearing, has always maintained his innocence.

He has not had to enter a plea yet, but at his last appearance at the same court instructed his lawyer to make clear he intended to plead not guilty.

“For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has,” barrister Robert Richter said at the time.

Richter pointed out that one witness had given police a “vague” statement.

Wallington noted the man was age 11 at the time.

“We’re dealing with historical events. Memory’s not static,” Wallington said.

Friday’s short hearing, known as a committal mention, was called to deal with procedural issues ahead of a full committal hearing.

Outside the court, protester Helen Dawson told Melbourne’s Herald-Sun newspaper that although brief, today’s court appearance by Pell was very significant.

“This trial is a very important display that the days of special privileges for high-ranking religious officials are finished and gone,” she said.

After years of alleged cover-ups and silence from the church over its pedophilia 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.

At his first court appearance, Pell had to battle through a crush of national and international media as he walked the short distance from his barrister’s office to the court’s main entrance.

Hunched over and looking weary, Australia’s most powerful Catholic made the same trek Friday but with a much heavier police presence, making no comment.

Pell has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican’s powerful economic ministry.

But the scandal has rocked the church. He is the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to its long-running sexual abuse scandal.

The allegations against Pell coincide with the final stages of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome.

Additional reporting by Associated Press