MELBOURNE — Vatican Cardinal George Pell will plead not guilty to historical sexual offence charges involving multiple complainants, a court in Melbourne was told on Wednesday.
“Cardinal Pell will plead not guilty to all the charges and will maintain his presumed innocence that he has,” his lawyer Robert Richter told the packed courtroom on Pell’s behalf.
The brief hearing at Melbourne Magistrates Court lasted around just five minutes. Magistrate Duncan Reynolds set October 6 for the next hearing in the case.
Pell, one of Pope Francis’ most senior aides, was mobbed by media as he entered and left the court with his legal team, but did not speak to reporters.
Full details of the charges against the 76-year-old, the highest-ranking Catholic official to be charged with sexual abuse, are yet to be released.
Pell was appointed head of the Secretariat for the Economy, a senior Vatican role, in 2014. He also sat on the nine-member cardinal panel advising Francis on wider church reforms.
The Vatican has granted him leave to defend himself and he arrived back in Australia earlier this month.
The case threatens to tarnish the legacy of Francis, who was elected on a mandate to clean up the Catholic Church from the financial and sexual abuse scandals which have dogged it.
The Holy See has not commented on Pell’s case, except to say that it “learned with regret” of the charges against him and expressed “its respect for the Australian justice system (which) will have to decide the merits of the questions raised.”
The filing hearing in Melbourne court on Wednesday marks the start of what is expected to be a lengthy legal process.
Outside, Pell was met by a few supporters and a dozen protestors holding placards including one reading “Nowhere to hide.”
Pell, who appeared in his usual black clerical clothes for the hearing, was flanked by two dozen police officers as he entered and left the court with two of his lawyers.
The court room, with capacity for around 80 people, was full, forcing 40 others to watch a live stream in another room.
“It is a very symbolic day,” said Phil Nagle, a child sexual abuse survivor, who was present in the court room.
“The cardinal appeared in court just as a normal person, not a top Catholic official. It was good to see that the police have been able to bring the charges before the court,” he said.
Nagle said it had been expected that Pell would plead not guilty.
“Pell is entitled to a just and fair trial and he has always maintained his innocence and he is entitled to have that decided by the court,” Nagle told dpa after the hearing.
Blue Knot Foundation, a child sexual abuse survivor group, said the history of the Catholic Church in harm minimization had been “shameful,” but the trial shows that “the tables are turning.”
The Church could no longer turn a blind eye to the issue “whether Cardinal Pell is found guilty or innocent,” it said.
“The sheer fact that these allegations are proceeding to prosecution attests to a major societal shift whereby bastions of power and hierarchical structures, previously unassailable are being brought to justice and account,” said Cathy Kezelman, the president of Blue Knot Foundation.
“While Cardinal Pell, due to his position, bears an assumption of integrity and spiritual purity, in this circumstance, he is to be tried as any other Australian man or woman facing such charges,” she continued.