Australian Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, on Tuesday officially denied charges of sexual abuse spanning decades after his lawyers failed to sway a court to dismiss them.
Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic will appear for the first time on Wednesday in the Victoria state County Court where he has been ordered to stand trial at a date yet to be set.
Lawyers for Pell, Pope Francis’ finance minister, have been fighting the allegations since before he was charged last June with allegations of sexual abuse against multiples people in Victoria from the time he was a priest in his hometown of Ballarat in the 1970s until the 1990s, when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington on Tuesday dismissed about half the charges that had been heard in a four-week preliminary hearing in Melbourne but decided the prosecution’s case was strong enough for the remainder to warrant a trial by jury. The details of the allegations and the number of charges have not been made public.
When she asked Pell how he pleaded, the cardinal said in a firm voice, “Not guilty.” Wallington gave the 76-year-old permission not to stand as is customary.
When the magistrate left the room at the end of the hearing, many people in the packed public gallery broke into applause.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke issued statement saying: “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell. Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place.”
Pell’s plea marked the only words he spoke in public during the hearing. Wearing a cleric’s collar, white shirt and dark suit, he was silent as he entered and left the downtown courthouse with his lawyer, Robert Richter. More than 40 police officers maintained order on the crowded sidewalk outside.
The cardinal’s legal team found some solace in the outcome, with Richter telling the magistrate “the most vile of the allegations” had been dismissed.
Anne Barrett Doyle, of BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts-based online abuse resource, described the magistrate’s decision to make Pell stand trial as “a turning point in the global abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.”
“Whatever its outcome, the judge’s decision marks the victory of accountability over impunity, and of the rule of secular law over the Vatican’s failed strategy of cover-up,” she said.
Pell’s lawyers had argued that all of the accusations were untrue, could not be proved and should be dismissed.
Wallington dismissed one charge because the alleged victim was an “unsatisfactory witness” during the first two weeks of the preliminary hearing, when complainants testified via a video link from a remote location to a courtroom closed to the public and media.
“It is difficult to see how a jury could convict on the evidence of a man who has said on his affirmation that he cannot recall what he said a minute ago,” Wallington said.
She described her job in the preliminary hearing as “sifting the wheat from the chaff.”
“Unless the credibility of a witness is effectively destroyed, credibility and reliability are matters for a jury,” she said. “Where the evidence is so weak that the prospect of conviction is minimal, it is not of sufficient weight to commit” a defendant to stand trial.
She said she did not dismiss charges “merely because there is a reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence.”
Under his bail conditions, Pell cannot leave Australia, contact prosecution witnesses and must give police 24-hour notice of any change of address.
Richter, Pell’s lawyer, told Wallington in his final submissions two weeks ago that the complainants might have testified against one of the church’s most powerful men to punish him for failing to act against abuse by clerics.
But prosecutor Mark Gibson told the magistrate there was no evidence to back Richter’s theory that Pell had been targeted over the church’s failings.