MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Australian Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, arrived Wednesday for an appearance in a Melbourne court where he will eventually stand trial on sexual abuse charges spanning decades.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington on Tuesday ordered Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic to appear at Victoria state County Court after ruling that prosecutors’ case was strong enough to warrant a trial by jury.
Pell is expected to face a brief preliminary hearing in which a trial date could be set.
Wallington dismissed about half the charges that had been heard in a four-week preliminary hearing. The details of the allegations and the number of charges have not been made public.
Lawyers for Pell, who is Pope Francis’ finance minister, have been fighting the allegations since before he was charged last June with sexual abuse against multiple 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.
When Wallington asked Pell on Tuesday 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 a 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.
Under his bail conditions, Pell cannot leave Australia, contact prosecution witnesses and must give police a 24-hour notice of any change of address.
Since Pell returned to Australia from the Vatican in July, he has lived in Sydney and flown to Melbourne for his court hearings. His circumstances are far removed from the years he spent as the high-profile and polarizing archbishop of Melbourne and later Sydney before his promotion to Rome in 2014.
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.