Melbourne — Cardinal George Pell’s barrister accused police of failing to follow proper procedures as a crucial hearing opened yesterday to determine if the top Pope Francis adviser will stand trial on historical sexual offence charges.
The 76-year-old, the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to the Church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal, denies all the claims.
He has taken leave from his role as Vatican finance chief to fight the charges, which relate to incidents that allegedly occurred long ago. Their exact details and nature have not been made public, other than they involve “multiple complainants”.
Pell, in a beige jacket on top of a black shirt with a clerical collar, arrived by car and was escorted by dozens of police as he made his way up the steps and into the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court.
This was in contrast to his two previous appearances at preliminary hearings — in July and October last year — when he walked from his nearby lawyer’s office in chaotic scenes as he was mobbed by the media.
A small group of protesters and supporters, holding placards and signs, were outside the court.
“Go to hell George Pell,” shouted Valda Ann Hogan, while a supporter, Beverly Hastie, told AFP: “I know him and he is an innocent man, a good man, a holy man and we’re here to support him.”
Up to 50 witnesses could be called during the committal hearing, where they will give their accounts and be cross-examined by Pell’s legal team. The hearings are due to last four weeks.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington will then decide if there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial.
The court was open to the media for some 30 minutes before the hearing was adjourned until the afternoon when evidence from Pell’s accusers is due to begin via video-link in closed proceedings.
During the brief session, in which Pell coughed but said nothing, his barrister Robert Richter said the defence team had supplied police with many witness statements favourable to the cardinal that they were obliged to investigate.
“They have not done so,” he claimed.
He also requested that a support person be allowed to accompany Pell to court “in regard to the cardinal’s age and medical condition”.
Pell was excused from giving evidence in person to a session of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2016 due to a heart ailment. Pell does not have to formally enter a plea unless committed to stand trial, although he instructed his lawyer from the outset 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,” Richter said in July.
Pell’s defence team said last week that part of their cross-examination would be to determine when the accusers first disclosed he had allegedly abused them, as they try to prove the allegations were a “recent invention”.
Since his last appearance, the cardinal’s lawyers have been denied requests for medical records of the complainants, with the magistrate saying disclosure could be harmful.
His case has coincided with a national inquiry into child sexual abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The commission spoke to thousands of victims and heard claims of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
Pell appeared before it three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome over the Church’s handling of complaints against paedophile priests.
Australia’s Catholic leaders have spoken out in support of him, describing Pell as a “thoroughly decent man”. — AFP