World News

Cardinal George Pell to Stand Trial on ‘Historical’ Sex Offenses

Posted May 1, 2018 1:00 a.m. EDT

MELBOURNE, Australia — Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking official, must stand trial on several charges of sexual abuse, an Australian court ruled Tuesday, promising to prolong a case that has already dragged on for months and which many see as a moment of reckoning for a church racked by scandal.

Belinda Wallington, a Melbourne magistrate, found there was sufficient evidence for prosecutors to bring the cardinal’s case to trial, ending a two-month pretrial hearing, in which witnesses described abuse they said took place decades ago.

But the vast majority of charges against the cardinal were either withdrawn or dismissed, including several of the most serious allegations, which were said to have taken place in a playground, on an altar, on a mountaintop and during a 1970s screening of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in Ballarat.

Pell, 76, is the Vatican’s de facto finance chief and the most senior Roman Catholic official to be charged with crimes of sexual abuse. He was granted leave by the pope to return to Australia to conduct his defense.

When asked to enter a plea, the cardinal said “not guilty.” He was ordered to surrender his passport.

The cardinal has been accused of “historical sexual offenses,” meaning they took place decades ago, but the details of the criminal complaint, including the identities of his accusers, have not been made public. Such cases are subject to Australia’s strict contempt standards, and other legal restrictions, which prohibit journalists from reporting on details of criminal allegations.

Robert Richter, the cardinal’s lawyer, said last year there was “voluminous” evidence to prove that “what was alleged is impossible.” Richter argued that Pell was being targeted for the worldwide failing of the Catholic Church to protect victims of abuse.

Pell was accused in 2016 in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while he served as the leader of the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. Then, in 2017, allegations surfaced that he had himself been involved in abuse beginning early in his priesthood and continuing until he became archbishop of Melbourne. He has denied those accusations.

“It’s a historical day for the survivors of Ballarat,” said Phil Nagle, an advocate for abuse victims, referring to the cardinal’s hometown, in which several priests were accused of misconduct. “I didn’t know whether this could happen. He’s the third most important person in the church. It’s good to see him being treated like any other citizen in court.”

It is unclear when the criminal trial will begin. At least two more hearings will be held before then to determine which evidence is admissible and to set a court date.

“The trial could be up to a year away,” said Judy Courtin, a lawyer and advocate who has represented sexual abuse victims. “The unknowns can be stressful and traumatic for survivors.”

But she characterized the magistrate’s decision as an important step for victims of priest abuse, saying “their truth is being acknowledged.”

The church has found itself at the center of a spiraling sex abuse scandal, spanning countries and decades. Pope Francis has been criticized in recent months for seeming to backtrack on earlier promises of a crackdown — including defending a Chilean bishop accused of covering up for a pedophile priest — but has not publicly commented on Pell’s case since charges were announced.

“The plain fact of the matter is that — well before this case began — Cardinal Pell’s star in the Vatican had begun to dim,” said John Allen, editor of the independent Catholic news website Crux.

Allen said a common working assumption is that Francis would accept the cardinal’s resignation if the trial goes ahead.