MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Wearing his clerical collar, the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis appeared in an Australian court for a hearing to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put him on trial.
Australian Cardinal George Pell’s committal hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates Court before Magistrate Belinda Wallington is scheduled to take up to a month, with testimony of alleged victims to be suppressed from publication.
Pell arrived Monday (March 5) 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 guard frisked him in a routine procedure, patting down Pell’s light-colored coat, black shirt and black trousers. Pell indicated to the guard that had no objection to the examination.
Other security guards ensured the public kept their distance from the 76-year-old cleric in the foyers of the seven-floor downtown courthouse 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 offenses — meaning crimes that are alleged to have occurred decades ago.
Defense lawyer Robert Richter accused police who investigated Pell of failing to follow guidelines for investigating prominent people.
Richter told Wallington that a former judge had prepared a report on how police should handle such investigations.
“It is a guide to police about how to fairly investigate claims against prominent people,” Richter said.
“We say that was not followed because there was a presumption of guilt,” Richter added.
Richter also said police had 21 witness statements provided by the defense that were favorable to the cardinal.
“These documents are certainly relevant to the alleged offenses,” Richter said.
“I know it doesn’t suit the prosecution because they are exculpatory of the cardinal.”
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-paneled courtroom in which reporters far outnumbered members of the public.
Gibson told Wallington that complainants would give evidence by a video link.
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 Wallington that given Pell’s age and medical condition, it was important that he be allowed to be accompanied in court by a supporter. Richter did not detail Pell’s health.
Richter told Wallington he understood the prosecution “has an objection to that support person being a priest, although I can’t understand that.”
But Gibson replied: “That’s not quite right.”
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, Shann 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.
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.