Australian cardinal back in court on sexual abuse charges

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, arrived Wednesday for an appearance in a Melbourne court where he will eventually stand trial on sexual abuse charges spanning decades.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington on Tuesday ordered Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic to appear at Victoria state County Court after ruling that prosecutors’ case was strong enough to warrant a trial by jury.

Pell is expected to face a brief preliminary hearing in which a trial date could be set.

Wallington dismissed about half the charges that had been heard in a four-week preliminary hearing. The details of the allegations and the number of charges have not been made public.

Lawyers for Pell, who is Pope Francis’ finance minister, have been fighting the allegations since before he was charged last June with sexual abuse against multiple people in Victoria from the time he was a priest in his hometown of Ballarat in the 1970s until the 1990s, when he was archbishop of Melbourne.

When Wallington asked Pell on Tuesday how he pleaded, the cardinal said in a firm voice, “Not guilty.” Wallington gave the 76-year-old permission not to stand, as is customary.

When the magistrate left the room at the end of the hearing, many people in the packed public gallery broke into applause.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke issued a statement saying: “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell. 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.”

Pell’s plea marked the only words he spoke in public during the hearing. Wearing a cleric’s collar, white shirt and dark suit, he was silent as he entered and left the downtown courthouse with his lawyer, Robert Richter. More than 40 police officers maintained order on the crowded sidewalk outside.

The cardinal’s legal team found some solace in the outcome, with Richter telling the magistrate “the most vile of the allegations” had been dismissed.

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