Catholic Church

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

Top adviser to Pope Francis denies all charges related to incidents that were said to have occurred long ago

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 9:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 10:00pm

The most senior Catholic Church leader to be charged with sexual abuse came close to confronting his accusers on Monday in a video-linked Australian court hearing to test the strength of the prosecution’s case.

Cardinal George Pell’s alleged victims began testifying in the Melbourne Magistrates Court against Pope Francis’ former finance minister in testimony that cannot be made public.

But the complainants, who cannot be identified, are avoiding the intense media scrutiny and the company of their alleged abuser by giving their evidence via a video connection from a secret location.

The 76-year-old Australian cardinal has denied any wrongdoing and has foreshadowed pleas of not guilty if the committal hearing that is expected to run as long as a month finds there is sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial.

Pell was charged last June with sexually abusing many people in his home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations have not been released to the public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offences – meaning the alleged crimes occurred decades ago.

One of the charges was withdrawn last week because the accuser died.

Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter did not object to the complainants appearing in court on a television screen rather than in person. But he did question why one would be allowed to appear with what prosecutor Mark Gibson described as a “support dog” while testifying.

“I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people,” Richter told the court.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington replied, “No, they’re also there for vulnerable and traumatised people.”

Pell was archbishop of Melbourne before progressing to archbishop of Sydney then moving to the Vatican as a prefect of the church’s economy ministry in 2014.

On Monday, Richter cited Pell’s age and medical condition as reasons the cleric should be allowed to be accompanied in court by a supporter. He told Wallington that he understood the prosecution “has an objection to that support person being a priest, although I can’t understand that”.

Gibson replied, “That’s not quite right.”

Pell was silent as he entered and left the court to a crush of media cameras and police, as well as throughout the initial 25 minutes of the hearing that was open to the public.

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.