Cardinal George Pell made his second appearance before an Australian court on Friday, with his defense team saying it wants to call some 50 witnesses in an effort to demonstrate that claims the 76-year-old prelate committed “historical sexual offenses” are impossible.
A four-week hearing has been scheduled beginning on March 5 of the next year to hear the evidence and determine whether the case should proceed to trial.
Legal observers in Australia say they assume Pell will have to stand trial, since roughly 95 percent of cases at the Magistrate’s Court level proceed to trial. Moreover, in a politically sensitive and high-profile case such as this, cases are rarely terminated at the preliminary stage.
Also at the March hearing, magistrates will decide which, if any, of the charges will proceed to trial, whether they will be tried together or separately.
Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, told the court on Friday that, “We say what was alleged is impossible,” insisting that evidence produced by the prosecutors is insufficient to demonstrate that Pell ever could have committed the offenses, let alone that he actually did.
Details of the charges against Pell have not been released, but one apparently concerns an incident that allegedly took place in the choir room of a cathedral in Ballarat, Australia, where Pell was serving at the time. Richter said he wants to call a series of witnesses who were choir boys to reconstruct the movements there, in an effort to show that Pell could not have broken away from the group without someone noticing.
“The notion that nobody observed somebody breaking ranks as part of a formal march back to the choir room is of great significance … everyone would have seen if they spun off somewhere,” Richter said.
A conservative think tank called the Institute for Public Affairs in Melbourne, where Pell’s hearings are taking place, confirmed Friday that supporters of the cardinal have created a legal fund to help him fight the charges.
Pope Francis granted Pell a leave of absence from his position as the Vatican’s Prefect of the Economy in June 2017 to return to Australia to participate in his defense. Pell has vowed he will not try to invoke immunity as a Vatican citizen to avoid the judicial process.
Pell attended Friday’s hearing, but did not make any comment, nor did he respond to the media crews and a knot of protestors outside the courtroom.
In the past, he’s strongly denied all wrongdoing. During a Vatican news conference last June when the charges were announced, Pell said, “I’m innocent of these charges. They are false.”