Cardinal George Pell, the 76-year-old Vatican finance chief, on Tuesday became the highest Catholic clerk to stand trial for historical sexual offenses.
The priest who swore to fight the charges, was impassive throughout the hearing in the Australian city of Melbourne who ordered him to face a jury on charges “multiple”. He categorically denies all charges against him, but justice will decide. “Not guilty,” said the high councilor of Pope Francis aloud and without hesitation when asked his plea, a position he has taken since his first indictment last year.
He is accused of multiple attacks that would have occurred many years ago. The exact nature of the alleged facts has not been disclosed, with the authorities merely referring to “multiple complainants”.
Melbourne magistrate Belinda Wallington said she was convinced there was enough evidence to justify a “multiple” charge. A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday to discuss a trial date.
Pell, who entered the court surrounded by a large police presence, was released on bail provided he did not leave Australia. He has already given his passport. The exact details and the nature of the claims against the Vatican’s chief financial officer, Cardinal Pell, remain confidential, apart from the fact that they involve “multiple plaintiffs”.
The Melbourne court heard for four weeks testimonies of alleged victims who submitted to the fire of the defense questions. Robert Richter, the cardinal’s lawyer, who had taken leave of the Vatican to defend himself, had decided that the case should not go to trial because the alleged victims were not credible.
“Cardinal George Pell has always cooperated fully with the Victoria State Police and has always and firmly maintained his innocence,” said a statement issued by the Archdiocese of Sydney and attributed to Pell.
But some of the alleged offenses occurred in a ballarat pool in Victoria in the 1970s and at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s, the court learned.
Several of the more serious allegations were rejected due to inconsistencies, including delinquency allegations in a Ballarat cinema during a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” screening.
Cardinal Pell had been heard three times in this affair and had admitted “failing” in his handling of pedophile priests in the state of Victoria. After this investigation, his indictment sparked an unprecedented scandal in the country.
Since then, Australian bishops have asked the pope to hold a special Plenary Council in order to initiate the reform of the local Church. This one has accepted and the council will take place in 2020
George Pell is the highest representative of the Catholic Church charged with alleged sexual assault. The announcement of his indictment coincided with the end of a long national inquiry into Australia’s institutional responses to child sexual abuse.