Cardinal George Pell, a top advisor to Pope Francis, has denied all charges of historical sexual abuse at his first appearance today in an Australian court.
The 76-year-old, the number-three figure in the Vatican as the finance chief, returned from Rome earlier this month to face the charges in Melbourne Magistrates Court.
Details of the charges have not been made public although police said they involved “multiple complainants”. The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has always maintained his innocence.
Looking sombre and frail, he attended the hearing with his lawyer, top criminal barrister Robert Richter, who told the court his client was not guilty — even though a formal plea was not required at this stage.
“For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has,” Richter told the court, national broadcaster ABC reported.
Pell, dressed in black and wearing his clerical collar, remained silent throughout with magistrate Duncan Reynolds ruling that evidence needs to be handed to his legal team by September 8, with the next court date set for October 6.
The cleric made no comment as he was escorted by a group of police through a crush of cameras, reporters and photographers into the court, which hears hundreds of cases a week for alleged crimes ranging from theft to murder.
Several photographers were knocked over in the melee.
Similar scenes greeted his departure after the brief hearing as he was ushered around 100 metres (yards) down the road to his lawyer’s offices surrounded by security, with a handful of supporters shouting “this is a show trial” and “innocent” as he walked past.
Protesters were also on hand, with one, Brian Cherrie, telling the Melbourne Herald Sun: “We need the truth.”
Pell was not required to attend the hearing, but Australia’s most powerful Catholic opted to appear, having previously vowed to defend himself and clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29.
“I am innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said in Rome last month, claiming he had been the victim of a campaign of “relentless character assassination”.
Australia’s Catholic leaders have spoken out in support, describing Pell as a “thoroughly decent man”.
The Archdiocese of Sydney is providing accommodation for him while he fights the charges, but it has said it will not foot his legal bills, which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Supporters have set up a fund to help him pay the costs, according to the Institute of Public Affairs, a high-profile conservative Australian think tank.
Despite being unofficially considered the third most powerful cleric in the Vatican, no special arrangements were in place at the court. Pell entered the building through the front door and was screened by security.
He has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican’s powerful economic ministry.
But the scandal has rocked the church. He is the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to its long-running sexual abuse scandal.
The allegations against Pell coincide with the final stages of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome.