Cardinal to deny claims of sex abuse, court hears
Silent but defiant, Cardinal George Pell made his first court appearance in Australia yesterday, on charges of sexual abuse, vowing through his lawyer to fight the allegations that have rocked Rome and threatened the Pope's image as a crusader against abusive clergy.
Cardinal Pell, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis's top financial adviser, is accused of sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria, making him the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis. Details of the charges have yet to be released to the public, though police have described them as "historical" sexual assault offences - meaning crimes that occurred years ago.
He has not yet entered a plea, but yesterday his lawyer told the court that the 76-year-old cardinal plans to formally plead not guilty at a future court date.
"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," lawyer Robert Richter told Melbourne Magistrates Court.
Cardinal Pell entered the courtroom in a black suit, his face devoid of expression as he took a seat behind his legal team. He said nothing during the hearing, or to the hordes of journalists who swarmed around him as he left the courthouse.
The hearing itself lasted just minutes and was remarkably routine. Yet the image of one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church standing before a cramped courtroom overflowing with reporters and spectators was anything but.
In recent years, the cardinal's actions as archbishop came under particular scrutiny by a government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to child sex abuse. Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - the nation's highest form of inquiry - revealed earlier this year that 7pc of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades.
In testimony to the commission last year, Cardinal Pell conceded he had made mistakes by often believing priests over those who said they had been abused. He also vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued abuse victims in his hometown of Ballarat. But over the past year, the allegations against him moved beyond the way he had handled cases of clergy abuse to accusations he had committed abuse. Australian detectives flew to the Vatican to interview him last year, and last month he was formally charged.
As he left the courthouse, a dozen Victoria police officers formed a circle around him, pushing their way through a media scrum as protesters and supporters shouted at him. "We love you Cardinal Pell," one woman yelled, while another screamed: "You were supposed to protect the children."
The cardinal is next expected in court on October 6.