Cardinal George Pell to plead not guilty to historical sexual abuse offences

By Calla Wahlquist
July 26, 2017

[with video]

Cardinal George Pell has appeared in the Melbourne magistrates court charged with multiple historical sexual abuse offences.

Seated behind his lawyer, Robert Richter, QC, dressed in a simple black suit and clerical collar, Pell did not speak throughout the six-minute filing hearing.

Richter said that while Pell was not required to enter a plea unless and until the matter was committed for trial, he would, because of the media and public interest in the case, indicate a plea of not guilty now.

“Cardinal Pell will plead not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumption of innocence,” he said.

Magistrate Duncan Reynolds ordered the prosecution serve a brief of evidence by 8 September with Pell to return to court for a committal mention on 6 October.

Prosecutor Andrew Tinney, SC, said Pell was facing “multiple historic sexual offence charges with respect to multiple complainants”.

He warned media and the public not to speculate on the outcome of the case or risk contempt of court charges under the doctrine of sub judice.

“The director of public prosecutions has already had to write to a number of media outlets with regard to articles that appeared to be in breach of those rules that apply,” Tinney said.

The cardinal had been shepherded into court by a group of police officers through about 100 waiting camera operators, reporters and photographers, who had started gathering from 6am. Pell arrived just before 9am and did not answer any questions from the media. Several people clapped as he arrived.

Fifty people were allowed into the courtroom when it opened just after 9am; the remainder were taken to another room to watch via video link.

The 76-year-old Pell arrived in Australia from Rome on 9 July to fight the charges. He had previously said he was too unwell to fly.

Pell is the third-highest ranking official in the Vatican and the highest ranking Catholic church official to be charged with sex offences.

After Pell was charged in June, a spokesperson for the cardinal said he “strenuously denied all allegations” and was “looking forward to his day in court”.

Before Wednesday’s hearing got under way, Reynolds told the public gallery that the only purpose of the filing hearing was to determine when the prosecution would file the brief of evidence.

A filing hearing is the first step in the court process, followed by a committal mention, when the accused person is expected to enter or indicate a plea. That is then followed by a committal hearing, if required.

At the end of that hearing the magistrate will decide if the case will be committed to the county court. At the county court, the process begins again: the accused is given an indictment setting out the charges and has a plea hearing, if they are pleading guilty, or a directions hearing, if the are pleading not guilty. The trial itself follows the directions hearing.

The statement was released by the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney, where Pell served as archbishop before being appointed secretariat for the economy in the Vatican in 2014.

He took a leave of absence from his position attempting to reform the church’s finances to fight the charges, and the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Greg Burke, released a statement expressing “regret” over the news but “respect” for the Australian legal system.

Pope Francis has declared a “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse in the church, saying in a letter to all Catholic bishops, released in January, that: “I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst.”

However his efforts to stamp out clerical sexual abuse, including an investigatory tribunal proposed in 2015, have been criticised.


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