Vatican treasurer George Pell to stand trial on ‘historical’ sex offences

Cardinal is most senior Catholic official to be tried on such allegations

Cardinal George Pell (76) leaves Melbourne Magistrates Court on Tuesday. The cardinal had always denied the allegations against him, but today was the first time he had been required to enter a formal plea. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA

Cardinal George Pell (76) leaves Melbourne Magistrates Court on Tuesday. The cardinal had always denied the allegations against him, but today was the first time he had been required to enter a formal plea. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA

 

The legal team representing Cardinal George Pell is understood to have applied for separate trials after Australia’s most senior Catholic was committed to stand trial on multiple charges of sexual assault.

Barrister Robert Richter’s application is being sought due to the differences in the allegations against his client. A decision on whether there will be one or more trials will be made by a county court judge in Melbourne.The county court will also decide when the trial or trials begin.

On Tuesday, magistrate Belinda Wallington struck out several charges at the start of her ruling, finding there was insufficient evidence for the 76-year-old cardinal to be convicted by a jury.The charges struck out were the most serious of the allegations.

But Cardinal Pell, who until a year ago was the Vatican’s treasurer and one of the most senior advisers to Pope Francis, will stand trial on charges concerning multiple complainants. These include alleged sexual offending at a swimming pool in the 1970s in the Victorian city of Ballarat, and at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s, when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

‘Not guilty’

Asked to enter a plea, Cardinal Pell said “not guilty” in a loud, clear voice. The cardinal had always denied the allegations against him, but it was the first time he had been required to enter a formal plea.

Supporters of the cardinal gathered outside Melbourne magistrate’s court, but they were outnumbered by those protesting against him. Some shouted abuse, while others held signs. One sign read: “Every child deserves a safe and happy childhood.”

In the four-week committal hearing in March which preceded Ms Wallington’s decision, much of the evidence was heard in a court closed to the media and public while complainants gave evidence. This is a standard procedure for cases involving sexual offence allegations in Australia.

Ms Wallington found it was impossible for a group of charges relating to one complainant to be sustained. The offences were alleged to have occurred over 12 months and the complainant alleged he was removed from St Joseph’s boys’ home in Victoria and taken to the locations where he alleged the offences occurred.

But Ms Wallington found the series of offences could not have occurred in the period alleged by the complainant, from late September 1978, because records showed he did not live at St Joseph’s during this time. His foster mother also gave evidence the complainant did not live in the boys’ home at that time.

Ms Wallington said the complainant “could not reconcile the differences”. “In this case the inconsistencies must be examined as a fundamental defect in evidence … I find [his] evidence as a whole is not of sufficient weight for a jury to convict,” she said.

‘Cavalier attitude’

A further allegation made by a separate complainant was also dismissed by Ms Wallington. The complainant had a “cavalier attitude” towards the court, she found, and sometimes cited a lack of recall to avoid answering questions.

Cardinal Pell was committed to trial on all but one charge out of a group of charges related to alleged offences against two complainants between July 1996 and December 1997. The nature of those allegations cannot be detailed for legal reasons.

Cardinal Pell’s law firm, Galbally, issued a statement saying he thanked his supporters for their “continuing support and prayers” and that “he will defend the remaining charges”.

The Vatican also issued a statement on the case, saying the cardinal would remain on leave during the trial. “Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place.”