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Australian Cardinal Charged With Sexual Abuse Enters Court

Wearing a black clerical collar, Cardinal George Pell attended the first day of a four week long court hearing to test the strength of the prosecution’s case made against him. Last June, Pell was charged with the sexual abuse of multiple people in his home state of Victoria in Australia. So far, he is the most senior official in the Vatican to be charged with sexual abuse.

 (Cardinal George Pell. Source: AP)

(Cardinal George Pell. Source: AP)

On Monday, alleged victims began testifying in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. This lower court evaluates the sufficiency of evidences, and determines if the case would be carried out in upper courts. Committal hearings are scheduled to run for four weeks.

So far, the details of allegations made against Pell have yet to be released. In June, Pell was charged with “historical sexual abuses” of multiple people in Victoria. This indicates that the alleged instances of assault had happened decades ago. Pell was only testified by video to an official inquiry last year, citing age and health reasons.

Pell is a prefect of the Church’s economy ministry at the Vatican, and works closely with Pope Francis. The Pope granted the cardinal a leave of absence, currently in effect.

Originally from Ballarat, Victoria, Pell became a bishop of Melbourne in 1996. During his tenure, ironically, he created “Melbourne Response,” in which the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne investigates local accusations of sexual abuse made against Catholic clergymen. As a result, clergies, many as dozen, stepped down. However, according to The New York Times, the compensations paid for the victims were capped under $38,000 in US dollars, which was far below than what victims in other countries would later receive.

Right now, eyes are on the Vatican. Many think that Pell will be a good indication of how the Catholic Church stands on its history of sexual abuses.

Pell is a close aide to Pope Francis, and plans to be back as the prefect of the secretariat for economy after the issue has been settled. But the Pope declared a “zero tolerance policy” against sexual abuse done by clergymen. Last June at a news conference at the Vatican, Pell has said he is “innocent of these charges, they are false,” and that “the whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

The Catholic Church of Australia is also under pressure. Last December, Australia’s longest running royal commission, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, released a final report. While the report was a series of investigations on the Catholic Church and other institutions, the Church was the sole target of about 20 recommendations.

Alleged victims are giving testimony through video. This is to avoid media scrutiny. As victims, they are vulnerable to what could be seen as disturbing research. Pell’s lawyers successfully obtained undisclosed pieces of evidence—such as medical records, from a victims advocacy group, the Victorian police force, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and complainants themselves. In February, Magistrate Wallington ruled that medical records could not be used for privacy reasons.

In addition, the media and the public have no access to the specific content of allegations. They were allowed to attend the testimony on the first day, but rest of the process would be done behind closed doors. One of Pell’s four lawyers, Robert Richter, has mentioned that there were 21 witness statements provided by the defense.

 (Cardinal George Pell entering the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday. Source: AP)

(Cardinal George Pell entering the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday. Source: AP)

While this is a test for the Vatican, it is also a test for the Australian justice system. Reporters from Australian news agencies are not allowed to cover the story after charges are filed, until reaching verdict. The law intends to avoid bias during the court proceedings. However, it could also be said that the Australian law tends to favor the defendants. According to Jason Bosland, who is a law professor at the University of Melbourne, suppression orders are often approved without rigorous examinations.