MELBOURNE, Australia — Lawyers for Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric to face sex charges, told an Australian court on Wednesday that the allegations stemmed from publicity surrounding a national inquiry into child abuse three years ago.
Pope Francis’s finance minister was charged last year with offenses involving multiple complainants in his native Australia. The exact details and nature of the charges have not been disclosed to the public, though police have described them as “historical” sexual assaults, meaning they are alleged to have occurred decades ago.
Pell’s lawyers failed in his application in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Wednesday to gain access to his alleged victims’ medical records.
The court will hold a preliminary hearing next month to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial. The charges and potential penalties have not been made public.
Pell has vowed through his layers to fight the charges. He returned to Sydney to face the allegations but was not required to attend court on Wednesday.
His lawyer, Ruth Shann, told Magistrate Belinda Wallington that the first complainant approached police in 2015, 40 years after the alleged crimes, in response to media reports about Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
“We will be saying that that complaint and the basis for it lacks reliability and credibility,” Shann told the court.
Australia’s longest-running royal commission — which is the country’s highest form of inquiry — had been investigating since 2012 how the Catholic Church and other institutions responded to sexual abuse of children in Australia over 90 years. The inquiry issued its final report in December.
Pell testified to the inquiry in a video link from the Vatican in 2016 about his time as a priest and bishop in Australia.
Shann said the first complaint set off a chain of events with others making allegations against Pell. None had previously complained to anyone, Shann said.
“The domino effect which occurred with those other people starts from an unreliable and uncredible source,” Shann told the court.
After years of alleged cover-ups and silence from the Church over its pedophilia scandal, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a monumental shift in the way society is responding to the crisis.
The case places both the cardinal and Francis in potentially perilous territory. For Pell, the charges are a threat to his freedom, his reputation and his career.
For Francis, they are a threat to his credibility, given that he promised a “zero tolerance” policy for sex abuse in the church.
Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis’s decision to appoint Pell to his high-ranking position. At the time of his promotion in 2014, Pell was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
So far, Francis has withheld judgment of Pell, saying he wants to wait for Australian justice to run its course. And he did not force the cardinal to resign. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy once the case is resolved.