From the Vatican to William Street: George Pell's next journey is across the street

By Adam Cooper
Sydney Morning Herald
May 1, 2018

Cardinal George Pell outside Melbourne Magistrates Court after hearing he has been committed to stand trial on sexual assault charges.
Photo by Jason South

Before he was charged, Cardinal Pell was overseeing Vatican finances.
Photo by Ken Irwin

Police provide a barrier for the cardinal as he leaves the Magistrates Court on Tuesday.
Photo by Jason South

It takes seconds to walk across William Street to get from Melbourne Magistrates Court to Victoria's County Court.

Usually a magistrate's decision to refer a criminal case to the higher court is just as straightforward, in some cases a formality from the start of a pre-trial hearing.

But in the case against George Pell, things weren't so clear.

After a four-week hearing in March, which featured more than 30 witnesses and some rigorous cross-examination by Cardinal Pell's lawyers, prosecutors and defence lawyers submitted pages of arguments advising magistrate Belinda Wallington what to do: commit Australia's most senior Catholic to stand trial or strike out the multiple sexual assault charges he faced.

The credibility and believability of witnesses – particularly accusers, who gave evidence in a closed court – was to be considered, as was the passage of time, the influence of media reports and the cardinal's profile, and timelines and geographic layouts which would help determine whether the allegations were plausible or improbable.

At the start of her ruling on Tuesday, Ms Wallington said it was a magistrate's job to sort the wheat from the chaff, to comb the evidence and determine whether it was capable of convincing a jury of 12 ordinary folk to find an accused person guilty.

More than an hour of calm, measured reading later, Ms Wallington committed Cardinal Pell to stand trial on half the charges he faced, and struck out the other half. Other charges were earlier withdrawn by prosecutors.

The cardinal was sent to trial on allegations he sexually assaulted multiple complainants at a swimming pool in the 1970s in Ballarat, where he was then based as a priest. And committed on allegations he sexually assaulted another accuser in St Patrick's Cathedral in the 1990s, when the accused was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

The magistrate found the evidence was credible, there was no sign the accusers colluded on what they told police or that the influence of media reports – notably a report on the ABC's 7.30 program before charges were laid – contaminated evidence. These questions and the evidence of the complainants, Ms Wallington ruled, were matters for a jury.

Asked to enter a plea, Cardinal Pell, 76, stayed seated behind his lawyers but said in a loud, clear voice: "Not guilty."

Details of the charges have not been revealed since they were laid and the cardinal first denied them.

Ms Wallington struck out allegations Cardinal Pell sexually assaulted an accuser in a Ballarat cinema during a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and at other locations in Ballarat, because there were inconsistencies in the complainant's account and "a fundamental defect in the evidence" overall, related to other witnesses and historical records. The magistrate also struck out one allegation that the cardinal sexually assaulted an accuser at the pool, because the complainant was an "unsatisfactory witness".

The charges that were struck out were the most serious . 

But the decision to commit Cardinal Pell to trial on the others will ring loud through the religious world.

The cardinal is widely considered the third-highest official in the Catholic Church, a man who less than a year ago, when Victoria Police charged him, oversaw the finances of the Vatican and the Holy See.

Now, not only is his career in tatters, he faces jail  if found guilty. Pope Francis granted Cardinal Pell time to fight his case, but won't get his treasurer back until late this year at the earliest, as the cardinal cannot leave Australia as part of his bail. The Pope has said he would wait for justice to take its course, but it is not known how long he is prepared to wait.

After Ms Wallington left the bench, some people at the back of the court clapped. Up until then, the loudest noise in the court had been reporters feverishly typing once the cardinal was committed, and the odd mobile phone not turned to silent.

But outside, some people seemed euphoric. One man sang, spontaneously making up a song about the cardinal, while a woman called for three cheers for the magistrate.

Some jeered the cardinal as he walked out of the building, straight-faced, with a barrier of police on either side, and into a waiting car.

Cardinal Pell is due to return to court on Wednesday, but this time on the other side of William Street, before a County Court judge for a directions hearing to determine a date for his trial.

Robert Richter, QC, the head of the defence team, on Tuesday flagged an application for his client to stand in separate trials given the differences in the allegations.

How the media reports the trial is also to be determined. Cardinal Pell's case has been extensively covered by world media, and that will continue when he fronts a jury.

Mr Richter said on Tuesday he was happy for the media to report that the "most vile" of the allegations had been struck out. However it is not known what his attitude will be to reporting  the trial.

During the committal hearing, Mr Richter was combative with witnesses during cross-examination, and later defended that "brutality" by arguing it was necessary at times "in order to expose perjury". Another occasion he accused Ms Wallington of being biased against him, but  apologised for the remark.

The Holy See released a statement late Tuesday evening in which it said Cardinal Pell's leave as the Vatican's treasurer would continue into the next stage of court proceedings.

"The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell," it read.

"Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place."

Cardinal Pell has at times over the past two months appeared tired from the impact of the legal process. Now he must stand trial, he and his accusers must endure it all again.  When that happens the cardinal will be seated in the County Court dock, a world away from his time as an adviser to the Pope.


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