Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell will face two trials on charges of historical sexual abuse, a judge at the County Court of Victoria ruled Wednesday.
The 76-year-old cardinal arrived at the Melbourne court less than 24 hours after a magistrate ruled the case should proceed to a trial by jury at a higher court.
Pell is the most senior figure in the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for alleged assault. He has pleaded not guilty.
One trial will focus on claims of historical sexual abuse spanning three decades and include events that allegedly took place at a swimming pool in rural Victoria in the 1970s. Another trial will deal with allegations of abuse at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Pell’s time as archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
A hearing to set trial dates is scheduled for May 16. Pell was released on bail.
Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter, told the court he hoped the trials would take place as soon as possible. He said, “That’s for various reasons … my client is 76 years old and, number two, everyone needs to get on with their lives.”
Richter told the judge it was important to separate the two trials as the allegations spanned 20 years. He said one of the witnesses is 80 years old and in poor health. Richter told the court his team would seek to get court subpoenas to attain the medical records of Pell’s accusers.
He asked that Pell not be compelled to be at the next hearing, but Judge Susan Pullen denied the lawyer’s request.
At the end of the hearing, the judge asked the cardinal, who was in front row of seats in the small courtroom, to stand.
When told he was out on bail, Pell replied, “Thanks, your honor.”
Some charges dropped
Melbourne Magistrate Belinda Wallington delivered her decision Tuesday morning after a monthlong committal hearing in March that heard evidence from many witnesses.
Wallington dropped half the charges but found there was enough evidence to commit Pell, one of the country’s most senior Catholic figures, to trial on multiple counts.
Pell didn’t show any emotion as the decision was announced. When asked to enter a plea, the cardinal said in a loud, clear voice, “Not guilty.”
At the end of the hearing, the prosecution confirmed Pell had already handed in his passport and he was not allowed to leave the country.
Tuesday’s decision to send Pell’s case to trial is a blow to an already embattled Catholic Church, which has been fighting allegations of abuse among its clergy for decades.
Thousands of cases brought to light around the world have led to investigations and convictions in countries including the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia.
In a statement released Tuesday, Pell’s legal team said its client “steadfastly” maintained his innocence. “He will defend the remaining charges. He would like to thank all those who have supported him from both here in Australia and overseas during this exacting time,” the statement said.
The Vatican stood by Pell in a statement, saying it had “taken note” of the court’s decision. “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,” the statement said.
From rural Australia to the Vatican
Pell’s ascent was a source of pride for many Catholic Australians, as he quickly rose from a rural parish priest to the highest offices of the Vatican.
In 1996, 30 years after he was first ordained as a priest, Pell was made archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II. Less than a decade later, Pell was appointed as archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and then made a cardinal in 2003.
But his greatest honor came in 2014 when he was handpicked by Pope Francis to become one of only nine advisers on the Council of Cardinals to the head of the Catholic Church.
In December 2017, a Royal Commission in Australia made recommendations that the Vatican should move to change ancient canon laws in order to reduce future risk of sexual abuse.
The recommendations included making celibacy voluntary for priests and making mandatory reporting of abuse to police if an admission is made during confession.