Top Vatican official faces Australian court on sex charges

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Australian cardinal George Pell reads a statement to reporters as he leaves the Quirinale hotel on March 3, 2016, after meeting members of the Australian group of relatives and victims of priestly sex abuses, in Rome, Italy. | Riccardo De Luca/AP file photo

MELBOURNE, Australia — The most senior Vatican official charged in the Catholic Church sex-abuse crisis made his first court appearance in Australia on Wednesday in a scandal that has stunned the Holy See and threatened to tarnish the pope’s image as a crusader against abusive clergy.

Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, has maintained his innocence since he was charged last month with sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the 76-year-old cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offenses — meaning crimes that occurred years ago.

Pell entered the small courtroom dressed in a black suit, face devoid of expression as he took a seat behind his legal team. He said nothing during the brief hearing, which dealt largely with administrative matters. Though he has not yet entered a plea, his lawyer, Robert Richter, told the court that Pell planned to formally plead not guilty at a future court date.

“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.

The hearing lasted just minutes and was remarkably routine. Yet the image of one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church standing before a cramped courtroom overflowing with journalists and spectators was anything but.

With its pedestrian setting of bland white-and-wood-paneled walls and grey carpet, the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court could scarcely have been further in both geography and atmosphere from the ornate and hallowed halls of the Vatican. Though many clerics have faced allegations of sex abuse in recent years, Pell is by far the highest-ranking church official ever charged, and his case has rocked the Vatican.

Pell entered the courthouse flanked by Victoria state police, and received a smattering of applause from several members of a local parish who attended the hearing to support the cardinal. To them, Pell has been preemptively and unfairly condemned before the facts of the case are known.

“We’re coming here open-minded — we’d like to hear the facts,” said Trevor Atkinson, who has met Pell previously. “It’s really a matter of giving him a fair go.”

To others, the appearance in court of one of the church’s most esteemed officials was a long overdue acknowledgement of the suffering felt by so many victims of clergy abuse.

Julie Cameron of Melbourne stood outside the courthouse holding a painting of Mary cradling an infant Jesus — an image she said was symbolic of the church’s duty to protect children.

“This is where the actual Catholic Church has to go through renewal,” Cameron said. “It has to acknowledge the crimes that were committed on children.”

As Pell left the courthouse, a dozen officers from the Victoria state police force formed a protective circle around him, pushing their way through a media scrum as protesters and supporters shouted at the cardinal.

“We love you Cardinal Pell!” one woman yelled, while another screamed: “You were supposed to protect the children!”

Elida Radig of Melbourne wept as Pell was swept away from the crowd, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event.

“We have to be proud that here in Australia and here in Melbourne … we are calling them to account,” she said through tears. “We are leaders. We are going to clean up the church. We are going to clean up the whole world, protecting the children.”

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 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; at the time of his promotion in 2014, Pell was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.

In 2014, Francis created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about the best ways to fight abuse and protect children. But the commission suffered a credibility setback when two members who were abuse survivors left in frustration. And the commission’s signature proposal — a tribunal to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse — was scrapped by the pope himself after Vatican officials objected.

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, though Pell took an immediate leave of absence so he could return to Australia to fight the charges. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church’s economy ministry once the case is resolved.

In recent years, Pell’s actions as archbishop came under particular scrutiny by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse — the nation’s highest form of inquiry — revealed earlier this year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades.

In testimony to the commission last year, Pell conceded that he had made mistakes by often believing priests over those who said they had been abused. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued abuse victims in his hometown of Ballarat.

But over the past year, the allegations against Pell moved beyond the way he had handled cases of clergy abuse to accusations that he, himself, had committed abuse. Australian detectives flew to the Vatican to interview him last year and last month, he was formally charged.

Police and prosecutors must present their brief of evidence to Pell’s legal team by Sept. 8. The cardinal is next expected in court on Oct. 6.

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