MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The alleged victims of the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis began giving testimony to an Australian court on Monday.
Australian Cardinal George Pell wore his clerical collar for the first day of the hearing in the Melbourne Magistrate Court to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put him on trial. The committal hearing is scheduled to take up to a month.
Pope Francis’ former finance minister was charged in June of last year with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offenses — meaning the crimes that are alleged to have occurred decades ago.
Monday’s testimony of alleged victims was suppressed from publication and the courtroom was closed to the public and media.
Their testimony, which is expected to take up to two weeks, proceeded for two hours before the court was adjourned until Tuesday morning.
Prosecutor Mark Gibson had earlier told Magistrate Belinda Wallington that the complainants would give evidence by a video link.
Wallington gave permission for one of complainants to be accompanied by what Gibson described a “support dog” while giving evidence.
Defense lawyer Robert Richter questioned whether the dog was necessary, saying, “I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people.”
Wallington replied, “No, they’re also there for vulnerable and traumatized people.”
Pell was flanked by police and defense lawyer Paul Galbally as he walked through a large group of media and into the court security screening area. He was silent as he entered, though he indicated to a security guard he had no objection to the routine security pat-down of Pell’s light-colored jacket, black shirt and black trousers.
Other security guards ensured the public kept their distance from the 76-year-old cleric in the foyers of the courthouse in Australia’s second-largest city, where he was once archbishop.
Richter said police had 21 witness statements provided by the defense that were favorable to the cardinal.
“These documents are certainly relevant to the alleged offenses,” Richter said. “I know it doesn’t suit the prosecution because they are exculpatory of the cardinal.”
The case places both the cardinal and the pope 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 famously promised a “zero tolerance” policy for sex abuse in the church. Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis’ decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place.
When Pell was promoted in 2014, he was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
Pell has not yet entered a plea. But his lawyers have told the court that the cardinal plans to formally plead not guilty if he is ordered to stand trial.
One of the charges was withdrawn last week because the accuser had recently died.
Pell was silent throughout a 25-minute hearing in the morning that began with Gibson amending dates and wording of charges.
Richter told Wallington he understood the prosecution “has an objection to that support person being a priest, although I can’t understand that.”
But Gibson replied: “That’s not quite right.”
Pell’s lawyers told the court last month that the allegations stemmed from publicity surrounding a national inquiry into child abuse three years ago.
His lawyer, Ruth Shann, said 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.
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. He did not attend in person because of medical problems.
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.
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.
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 church’s economy ministry once the case is resolved.