Cardinal Pell in court on sex offence allegations

Cardinal Pell in court on sex offence allegations

Cardinal Pell in court on sex offence allegations

Australia's most senior cleric Cardinal George Pell will today face an enormous media throng outside the Melbourne Magistrates' Court, for day one of a month-long committal hearing.

The hearing will be closed to the public and media for two weeks while the complainants give their evidence, as required by law in sexual offence cases.

A high-ranking Catholic Church member has appeared in court charged with multiple historical sexual offences relating to several complainants.

Cardinal Pell, who has worked at the Vatican since 2014, was granted leave by the Pope from his role as the Vatican's finance chief, but vowed to return after legal proceedings against him finished.

Police formed a wall on either side of the footpath along William Street in Melbourne's CBD, flanking Pell on both sides as he walked up to the court, where reporters from dozens of news outlets from around the world were waiting.

Judy Courtin, a lawyer who specialises in representing victims of historic sexual abuse, said the pressure on the complainants when they will be cross-examined by the famously thorough Mr Richter will "be enormous".

Magistrate Belinda Wallington granted permission for a support person from the witness assistance program to accompany the complainants as they give their evidence via video link from a remote facility.

Richter also told the court a report into how Victorian police should investigate "prominent people" ought to remain in the brief, and suggested police had not followed procedure.

"These documents are certainly relevant to the alleged offences", Richter said.

Prosecutor Mark Gibson asked the court to allow Pell's accusers to have an assistant and a support dog next to them for comfort. "I know they don't suit the prosecution because they're exculpatory, but they're still there and they're in the possession of the police", he said.

Magistrate Wallington said she thought the dog was an "excellent initiative" and noted that it is meant to provide support to "vulnerable and traumatised" people.

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.

One of the charges was withdrawn last week because the accuser had died. For Pell, the charges are a threat to his freedom, his reputation and his career.

Cardinal Pell will not have to enter a formal plea unless committed to stand trial, but his barrister Robert Richter QC said at the Vatican treasurer's first court appearance last July that Pell will plead not guilty to all charges.

So far, Francis has withheld judgment of Pell, saying he wants to wait for Australian justice to run its course.

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