After only five minutes, the first court hearing in the abuse proceedings against Cardinal George Pell in the Melbourne District Court was over. Pell appeared in person at the start of the trial. His lawyer pleaded not guilty.
"Cardinal Pell will plead not guilty to all charges," lawyer Robert Richter said, according to Australian media reports. Pell (76) himself did not comment. Details of the indictment are not yet public. He is accused of having covered up cases of abuse, but this would hardly be legally punishable. But there are also allegations that Pell himself has abused minors in the past.
Formal procedural questions at the first court hearing
The meeting on Wednesday was initially only to clarify formal procedural ies and to set dates for the continuation of the trial against the Vatican finance minister. The court set the prosecution 8. September as the deadline for filing their charges against Pell.
On 6. October, the case is then to be called before the district court in preliminary proceedings. On that date, the court will decide whether and when to hold a pretrial hearing based on the evidence presented by the prosecution. Only in this "committal hearing" called hearing, whose date is not yet fixed, the decision on the opening of a main trial will be made.
Proceedings could drag on for years
A main hearing against Pell would then take place either before the higher district court or before the Supreme Court of the Australian state of Victoria, whose capital is Melbourne. The "Pell case" could therefore drag on for years and become a constant media, ecclesiastical and legal hot potato.
Pope Francis has released Cardinal Pell from his duties as Vatican finance minister for the duration of the trial. Pell, previously number three in the Holy See hierarchy, is the highest-ranking church official to date to stand trial in a court of law over abuse allegations. The only thing that is remembered is the scandalous show trial in 1949 against the Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by a people's court for "subversion, espionage and currency offences".
Another abuse trial in Australia
There is another case pending in Australia against a high-ranking church official. The Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, is accused of failing to report abuse cases to police.
At the end of June, Melbourne police announced that they had opened an investigation into Pell's sexual abuse of boys. Here it goes around longer past abuse reproaches. The cardinal had already been questioned in Rome in October 2016 by Australian police officers about the abuse allegations. Two men in their 40s accuse him of sexually assaulting them at a Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s.
Accusations of abuse and cover-up
In 2002, Pell was cleared of an abuse allegation by a Melbourne Archdiocese commission of inquiry for lack of evidence. A man had accused Pell of sexually abusing him as a 12-year-old at a youth camp.
Cardinal Pell also faces cover-up allegations.
He is alleged to have been involved in concealing abuse cases as a priest in Ballarat (1976-80) and later as archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001). He had always vigorously denied this before the state abuse commission.
The abuse allegations are particularly sensitive because Pell had acknowledged that Australia's Catholic Church had downplayed child abuse for many years. As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell had also set the first standards for dealing with abuse cases.