Following a four-week committal hearing last month, an Australian magistrate on Tuesday dismissed some of the most serious charges of “historical sexual offenses” against Cardinal George Pell but also ruled that the 76-year-old prelate will stand trial on at least three different complaints.
It’s not clear at this point when that trial will take place, though sources in Australia say that criminal procedures of this sort often can last one year to 18 months. Pell has denied the charges vigorously since police first filed them last summer, and he pleaded “not guilty” on Tuesday during his court hearing.
He is expected to face a directions hearing in Melbourne’s County Court in the future, when a trial date will be set. Pell’s attorney on Tuesday said he may seek separate trials, given the nature of the remaining allegations.
Pell is currently on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s Secretary for the Economy, and he becomes the most senior Church official ever to face criminal charges of sexual abuse in a civil court of law.
His committal hearing is believed to have been one of the longest ever in the Australian state of Victoria, the capital of which is the city of Melbourne where Pell’s legal proceedings have unfolded. The first 10 days of the hearing were heard in closed session, when Pell’s accusers were questioned.
The decision to go to trial was largely expected after Magistrate Brenda Wallington announced during the hearing that she believed a person should be committed to stand trial unless there was a “fundamental defect” in the evidence.
“I think issues of credibility and reliability are matters for a jury, except where you get to a point where the credibility is effectively annihilated,” she said.
Moreover, legal observers in Australia say that most criminal indictments in the country survive the committal hearing stage.
The leader of Pell’s defense team, Robert Richter, told the court in March there was no way a jury could convict the cardinal because of the improbability of the allegations and because the complainants who made them had no credibility and could not be believed. Richter also suggested that Pell had been targeted due to perceived failures to respond adequately to abuse allegations against other clergy, both as a priest and as the archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney.
Lead prosecutor Mark Gibson argued that while there were conflicts in some of the evidence, the differences were questions for a jury, and that the accusers had never wavered in their allegations against Pell.
While lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense have been barred from sharing details of the charges, media reports suggest the most serious matters relate to two accusers, one alleging sexual offending in a cinema in the 1970s in the Australian city of Ballarat, where Pell was then working as a priest. Another accuser says he was sexually assaulted at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s, at which stage Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne.
Other charges were dropped in early March shortly before the committal hearing, after one accuser died in January and another was determined to be medically unfit to give evidence.
Had Wallington ruled against taking the case to trial, in theory an Australian Director of Public Prosecutions could employ discretionary power to “directly present” an accused person to trial. However, that prerogative is rarely invoked.
In recent years, Pell’s actions as archbishop came under particular scrutiny by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the nation’s highest form of inquiry, revealed last year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades.
In testimony to the commission in 2016, Pell conceded that he had made mistakes by often believing priests over people who said they had been abused. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued abuse victims in his hometown of Ballarat.
Pell testified to the inquiry in a video link from the Vatican about his time as a priest and bishop in Australia. He did not attend in person because of a heart condition and other medical problems.
After criminal charges were filed against Pell in 2017, he returned to Australia to fight them and has appeared consistently at his court hearings.
Pell has been a key point of reference in English-speaking Catholicism for at least the last two decades, and he was appointed by Pope Francis to his “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world in 2013. He served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, then as the Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until his appointment to his Vatican position in 2014.
Immediately after the ruling, the Archdiocese of Sydney released a statement saying it wouldn’t comment on the legal proceedings and that justice should take its course.
In the morning Rome time, the Vatican’s spokesman Greg Burke released a statement saying that “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia” regarding 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,” Burke said.
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to reflect the comments of Vatican spokesman Greg Burke.