“Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell faces a crunch hearing starting in Australia Monday to determine if he stands trial on historical sexual offence charges.
The 76-year-old, a top adviser to Pope Francis who has taken leave to fight the allegations, is accused of multiple offences relating to incidents that allegedly occurred long ago.
Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to the Church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal, has denied all the claims.
The exact details and nature of the allegations have not been made public, other than they involve “multiple complainants”.
One of charges was withdrawn on Friday, reportedly because the accuser died.
Up to 50 witnesses could be called during the four-week committal hearing at the Melbourne Magistrates Court, which will be closed to the media and public for up to two weeks while they give their accounts.
The magistrate will then decide if there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial.
Pell’s defence team said last week 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”, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
A frail-looking Pell has so far made two court appearances at preliminary hearings — in July and October last year.
He has not had to enter a plea, 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,” his barrister Robert Richter said in July.
The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop did not have to attend the previous hearings, but opted to do so having vowed to clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29 last year. He is expected to be in court again on Monday.
Since his last appearance, his legal team has been denied requests for medical records of the complainants, with the magistrate saying disclosure could be harmful.
The Pell case has coincided with Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The commission spoke to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child 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 his dealings with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
In its findings handed down in December, the five-year inquiry found Australian institutions “seriously failed” children in their care with tens of thousands sexually assaulted.
It recommended that celibacy among Catholic priests should be voluntary to help curb abuse.
With Pell proclaiming his innocence, Australia’s Catholic leaders have spoken out in support, describing him as a “thoroughly decent man”.
The Archdiocese of Sydney is providing his accommodation while he fights the charges, but it has said it will not foot his legal bills, which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”