World News

As Australian Cardinal Confronts Abuse Charges, a Guide to the Case

Posted March 3, 2018 3:28 p.m. EST

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking official, will appear in a Melbourne, Australia, court Monday for the start of several weeks of hearings to determine whether he will face trial on charges of “historical sexual offenses.”

The slow-moving case — charges were filed in June — will be a test of both Australia’s justice system and the Vatican’s efforts to hold clerics accountable after decades of abuse scandals.

Here is a guide to what we know, what we don’t know — and how the case will be shaped by Australia’s court system.

Who is Cardinal George Pell?

The son of a Catholic mother and an Anglican father, George Pell grew up in Ballarat, a mining town northwest of Melbourne, where he also served as a priest from 1971 to 1984.

During that time, accusations of abuse by priests swirled through the area, but Pell later said he had no memory of hearing about specific substantiated cases of sexual abuse.

His rise through the church was swift. He became bishop of Melbourne in 1996. Less than a year later, he formed the “Melbourne Response,” a process to investigate local accusations of sexual abuse against Catholic clergymen.

More than a dozen priests accused of abuse stepped down during Pell’s time in Melbourne, but he also protected the church’s finances. The Melbourne Response capped payouts to victims at 50,000 Australian dollars ($38,000), far below what victims in other countries would later receive.

In 2007, he was appointed to a council of cardinals assigned to improve the Vatican’s finances. In 2014, Pope Francis named him prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, effectively making him the Vatican’s treasurer and its third most senior figure.

In June, his legal team received the charges against him in the state of Victoria. Francis gave him a leave of absence to return to Australia to mount his defense.

What has he been accused of?

Pell has been charged with “historical sexual offenses.” No further details of those charges have been publicly released by the courts.

Pell previously denied knowing about abuse in the 1970s and ‘80s, but the description of the crimes that have been made available to the public would suggest he is now being accused of having been personally engaged in sexual offenses. However, nothing has been made public about the details — not the number of accusers, not the time frame of the accusations, nor the severity of the acts at the center of the case.

What’s known is that Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican cleric to face charges of sexual crimes, and that he has aggressively denied the charges.

“The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said at a news conference in Rome in June.

Whathappens next?

Expected to run for four weeks, the cardinal’s committal hearing will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to take the case to trial.

All relevant evidence will be presented to the magistrate by the prosecution, including witness testimony.

Local news outlets have reported that up to 50 witnesses could be called during the hearing process. The court heard last year that some of the witnesses were choir boys at the time of the alleged incidents.

All witnesses can be subject to cross-examination by the defense — a noteworthy detail because Robert Richter, the cardinal’s lawyer, has a reputation for a withering and aggressive approach.

“We want to demonstrate that what was alleged was impossible,” Richter told the court last October.

Even if the magistrate decides there is not sufficient evidence to proceed, Victoria’s director of public prosecutions can still decide to try Pell.

The hearing’s proceedings are largely conducted outside of public view. Reporters are being granted access for the first day of the hearing but will not be allowed to return to cover actual testimony.

Why can’t the public know more about criminal cases?

Australian law tends to be more favorable to defendants, and proceedings more secretive, than in the United States.

The country’s contempt standards prohibit reporting — after charges have been filed and before a verdict has been reached — that might be seen as prejudicial against or for a defendant.

Depending on the type of offense, journalists cannot publish information on a wide range of topics including: specific accusations against an individual, prior convictions and affiliations with convicted criminals, and material that might be deemed unreasonably favorable to a defendant’s case.

All news media organizations in Australia are subject to this restriction, which has the potential to create vast differences in articles about the case published from inside or outside Australia.

Suppression orders are also used in many cases to further restrict what journalists can report in Australia, placing details that appear in court records off limits.

In rare cases, even the existence of a suppression order can be banned from publication, meaning that journalists cannot report precisely why certain details are missing from their coverage. These are sometimes referred to as superinjunctions.

“Quite often, orders will be made to protect the fairness of the defendant’s trial,” said Jason Bosland, a law professor at the University of Melbourne, whose research has focused on court proceedings. “That’s the main purpose of an order.”

But, he added, such orders are often approved without rigorous scrutiny about whether they are in fact necessary.

In a report published before Pell’s case began, Bosland wrote: “Open justice is increasingly being undermined in Victoria due to the inappropriate use of suppression orders by the courts.”

In an interview, he added: “The problem in Australia is that the courts tend to make orders that don’t comply with the strict requirements of the law.”