Tue, Mar 06, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Vatican official’s hearing opens

AUSTRALIA:A court is to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for Cardinal Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with sexual offenses, to stand trial


Cardinal George Pell leaves the Magistrates’ Court of Victorian in Melbourne yesterday.

Photo: AFP

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 would stand trial on historical sexual offense charges.

The 76-year-old, the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offenses linked to the church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal, denies all 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 Magistrates’ 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 reporters: “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 are to give their accounts and be cross-examined by Pell’s legal team. The hearings are due to last four weeks.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington would then decide if there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial.

The court was open to the media for about 30 minutes before the hearing was adjourned until the afternoon, when evidence from Pell’s accusers was 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 defense team had supplied police with many witness statements favorable 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 that 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.

Part of the cross-examination would be to determine when the accusers first disclosed that he had allegedly abused them, as they try to prove that the allegations were a “recent invention,” Pell’s defense team said last week.

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