In the first step of what could be a long legal journey, Australian Cardinal George Pell appeared before a court in Melbourne on Wednesday morning for an initial hearing related to charges of sexual abuse, which established that the next act in the drama will come Oct. 6.
The hearing, which began at 10:00 a.m. local time and lasted just six minutes, was a procedural matter intended only to establish when prosecutors will turn over their evidence to defense attorneys and the next time Pell has to appear.
Pell was not required to enter a plea on Wednesday, but his lawyer told the court Pell would fight the charges.
“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,” the lawyer, Robert Richter, said.
Pell himself didn’t speak during the brief hearing.
Although details of the charges against Pell have not been revealed, police spokespersons in the Australian state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, say he’s been accused of “historical sexual offenses” from “multiple complainants.”
Pell has asserted his innocence vigorously.
“I’m innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sex offences is abhorrent to me,” he said at a Vatican news conference on the day he was charged.
“News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return to my work in Rome. I am looking forward finally to having my day in court,” he said.
Pell has been given a leave of absence by Pope Francis from his position as the Vatican’s Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. In a statement released at the time, the Vatican said the pope views the charges with “regret” and praised Pell’s “honesty” and “integrity,” but also pledged “respect for the Australian justice system.”
Pell, now 76, is originally from the Australian city of Balarat, in Victoria, and served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne during the 1970s and 80s before being appointed an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987, the period of time from which the charges reportedly stem.
Pell later became the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1997, and the Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. He took up his present Vatican post as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014.
Wednesday’s brief hearing was a largely procedural matter, intended to establish a timetable for the case to move forward. It did not involve any decision by a judge as to whether the charges are sufficient to move forward with a trial.
Instead, that decision will come at what’s known as a “committal hearing,” at which point a magistrate will decide if the case will proceed to trial.
Under Australian law for sexual offenses, a committal mention hearing must be within three months after the commencement of the criminal proceedings. In some circumstances, however, the date can be extended if a court is satisfied that it is in the interests of justice to do so.
A source close to the legal scene in Australia told Crux that “95 percent” of cases that reach a committal hearing do move forward to trial, because “it takes a brave junior magistrate” to buck the recommendations of police and prosecutors. In a politically sensitive case such as this, with high media interest, the source said it’s even less likely the charges would be set aside.
Also up in the air is the question of whether, if the case goes to trial, there will be just one, or if a judge will rule that separate charges need to be tried individually. If so, it’s also not clear whether those trials would occur sequentially or concurrently.
If there are multiple trials to be held sequentially, the time frame for resolution of the case could extend significantly. Sources tell Crux that the best case for Pell would be a process that reaches conclusion within 12 months, but it could take significantly longer, potentially a few years or more.
Pell arrived in Australia in mid-July, and is staying in Sydney while the legal process plays out, traveling to Melbourne on an as-needed basis.
Philip Nagle, a Ballarat survivor of abuse by Christian Brother Stephen Farrell in the 1970s, was in Melbourne for Wednesday’s hearing, having promised other survivors he would attend, although he has no connection to the charges against Pell.
Nagle said he wanted to see the complainants and their claims handled in a respectful way. He said it was important to make sure it was a just court case. He said it did not matter that the hearing would only last a few minutes.
“(It’s important) to witness it,” he told The Australian. He called it a “huge day,” one, he said, abuse survivors have been “waiting many years for.”
Chrissie Foster, a longtime campaigner in Australia for survivors of clerical abuse, was seated in the small courtroom. Foster had two daughters who reported abuse by a local priest, one of whom later committed suicide and the other was struck and severely injured by a drunk driver while struggling with alcohol addiction herself.
However, there were also Pell supporters on hand outside the court building. One woman held a sign reading, “Thanks for helping our family,” with a small note that added, “No trial by media!”
Since Pell was charged on what Australians call a “summons,” he could have asked to be excused from appearing in person and have his lawyer represent him, but he decided he wanted to be present. No special arrangements were made for Pell’s appearance, despite the case’s high profile.
As captured by the film crews present, a handful of people applauded as Pell walked by, making his way into the courtroom.
Reporters and camera crews began setting up shop outside Melbourne’s Melbourne Magistrates Court well before 6:00 a.m. local time on Wednesday, despite the quick and largely pro-forma nature of the hearing.
Victims’ advocate Leonie Sheedy is worried the intense media coverage may trigger traumatic memories for abuse survivors.
The Care Leavers Australasia Network chief executive said that, because the case is exceptional in terms of public and international interest, it has the potential to cause far more distress than previously reported court cases.
“We urge all care leavers to take care of themselves this week and turn off news reports or media coverage of the case if they find it too upsetting,” Sheedy said on Tuesday.
Victoria Police said in June they had made the decision to charge Pell after receiving advice from prosecutors earlier this year.
“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants,” Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said last month.
In a statement earlier in July, a spokesperson for Pell said he “will not be making further comment, other than to say he is grateful for the numerous messages of support he continues to receive.”