The Vatican’s Finance Chief Cardinal George Pell, who is a top adviser to Pope Francis, has made a second appearance at an Australian court on sexual abuse charges.
The frail-looking Pell, who is the most senior Catholic Church official facing such charges, attended the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday.
He intended to challenge what has been described as historical charges, meaning that the alleged offenses took place a long while ago.
He appeared at the largely administrative court flanked by police officers and did not react to a group of loud protesters carrying signs that condemned the extensive involvement of Catholic clerics in the sexual abuse of minors and aspiring priests.
Pell is accused of committing multiple sexual offenses, which he strongly denies.
The allegations against the high-ranking Vatican official coincide with the final stages of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, established in 2012 following a decade of pressure to probe widespread allegations of institutional pedophilia. The commission has reportedly interviewed thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse at churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups, and schools.
According to local news reports, the court’s Magistrate Belinda Wallington said all witnesses would be allowed except five, meaning that as many as 50 of them could be called.
The exact details and nature of the allegations have not been revealed. It has been said that there are “multiple complainants.”
The 76-year-old former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne traveled from Rome to Australia in July to attend the first hearing in the case while maintaining his innocence. Though Pell has not yet had to enter a plea, he instructed his lawyer at his last court appearance to make clear he intended to plead not guilty.
Pell’s attorney Robert Richter has said one of the witnesses had given police a “vague” statement. Wallington, the magistrate, said the male witness in question was 11 years old at the time and that “we’re dealing with historical events. Memory’s not static.”
After years of widely-reported cover-ups and silence from the Catholic Church over pedophilia scandals, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a major shift in the way society is responding to the crisis.
Meanwhile, Pell has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope.