An Australian court has ruled that Vatican treasurer George Pell must face trial on charges of historical child sexual offences.
Cardinal Pell has become the most senior Catholic figure to face sexual assault charges after the court in Melbourne committed him to stand trial on historical offences involving multiple victims.
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The Pope has said he would not comment on the case until it was over.
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The Telegraph reports: After being asked for a plea, 76-year-old Pell, a trusted aide of Pope Francis, stated firmly and loudly: “Not guilty”.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington dismissed about half the charges because of a lack of evidence or concerns about witness credibility. These included – according to Pell’s lawyer – the more “vile” of the alleged offences.
But Ms Wallington ordered the Cardinal to face a trial by jury for alleged sexual offending at a pool in the 1970s in Ballarat, near Melbourne, and at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s when he was the city’s Archbishop. After the magistrate left the court, a group of the Cardinal’s critics broke into applause.
The precise details of the alleged offences are yet to be revealed. Much of the committal hearing was closed to the public because the case involved alleged sexual offences.
The case follows an explosive report aired on ABC News in 2016 in which two men claimed they were groped by Pell in the late 1970s at Eureka pool in Ballarat, where the cleric had grown up and worked.
“He would play games like throw the kids out of the water,” Lyndon Monument, a former student, claimed to the ABC. “You know, his hand touching your genitals and stuff on the outside of your bathers or shorts. And then that slowly became hand down the front of the pants or your bathers or whatever you call them.”
One of the men who made the allegations, Damian Dignan, died in January after a long illness.
Pope Francis did not force Pell to resign after he was charged and granted leave to the Cardinal to return to Australia to fight the charges. But the decision to move the case to trial could place pressure on the Vatican for a stronger response, especially as Pope Francis has claimed he has “zero tolerance” for abuse in the Church.
Pell, who holds a doctorate from Oxford, has long been an imposing figure in Australia and has been heavily criticised for his handling of child sex abuse by Catholic priests. He is known for his staunchly conservative views on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, which he once said was a “worse moral scandal” than child sex abuse by priests.
As rumours swirled about his alleged misconduct and alleged victims began to come forward in the media, Pell insisted on his innocence and left his post in the Vatican to fight the charges after he was charged in June last year.