Beginning fight against abuse charges, Pell says he’ll plead ‘not guilty’ – Crux: Covering all things Catholic

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In the first step of what could be a long legal journey, Australian Cardinal George Pell appeared before a court in Melbourne on Wednesday morning for an initial hearing related to charges of sexual abuse, which established that the next act in the drama will come Oct. 6.

The hearing, which began at 10:00 a.m. local time and lasted just six minutes, was a procedural matter intended only to establish when prosecutors will turn over their evidence to defense attorneys and the next time Pell has to appear.

Pell was not required to enter a plea on Wednesday, but his lawyer told the court Pell would fight the charges.

“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,” the lawyer, Robert Richter, said.

Pell himself didn’t speak during the brief hearing.

Although details of the charges against Pell have not been revealed, police spokespersons in the Australian state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne, say he’s been accused of “historical sexual offenses” from “multiple complainants.”

Pell has asserted his innocence vigorously.

“I’m innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sex offences is abhorrent to me,” he said at a Vatican news conference on the day he was charged.

“News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return to my work in Rome. I am looking forward ­finally to having my day in court,” he said.

Pell has been given a leave of absence by Pope Francis from his position as the Vatican’s Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. In a statement released at the time, the Vatican said the pope views the charges with “regret” and praised Pell’s “honesty” and “integrity,” but also pledged “respect for the Australian justice system.”

Pell, now 76, is originally from the Australian city of Balarat, in Victoria, and served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne during the 1970s and 80s before being appointed an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987, the period of time from which the charges reportedly stem.

Pell later became the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1997, and the Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. He took up his present Vatican post as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014.

Wednesday’s brief hearing was a largely procedural matter, intended to establish a timetable for the case to move forward. It did not involve any decision by a judge as to whether the charges are sufficient to move forward with a trial.

Instead, that decision will come at what’s known as a “committal hearing,” at which point a magistrate will decide if the case will proceed to trial.

Under Australian law for sexual offenses, a committal mention hearing must be within three months after the commencement of the criminal proceedings. In some circumstances, however, the date can be extended if a court is satisfied that it is in the interests of justice to do so.

A source close to the legal scene in Australia told Crux that “95 percent” of cases that reach a committal hearing do move forward to trial, because “it takes a brave junior magistrate” to buck the recommendations of police and prosecutors. In a politically sensitive case such as this, with high media interest, the source said it’s even less likely the charges would be set aside.

Also up in the air is the question of whether, if the case goes to trial, there will be just one, or if a judge will rule that separate charges need to be tried individually. If so, it’s also not clear whether those trials would occur sequentially or concurrently.

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