Silent but defiant, Cardinal George Pell made his first court appearance in Australia on Wednesday on charges of sexual abuse, vowing through his lawyer to fight the allegations that have rocked Rome and threatened the Pope’s image as a crusader against abusive clergy.
Cardinal Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis’s top financial adviser, is accused of sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria, making him the most senior Vatican official ever charged. Details of the charges have yet to be released to the public, though police have described them as “historical” sexual assault offences – meaning crimes that occurred years ago.
Cardinal Pell has not yet entered a plea, but on Wednesday, his lawyer told the court that the 76-year-old plans to formally plead not guilty at a future court date.
“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,” lawyer Robert Richter told the court.
Cardinal Pell entered the small courtroom dressed in a black suit, face devoid of expression as he took a seat behind his legal team. He said nothing during the hearing, or to the hordes of journalists who swarmed around him as he left the courthouse.
Pell was flanked by Victoria state police officers as he entered the courthouse, where he received a smattering of applause from several local parishioners who attended the hearing to support the cardinal. To them, Pell has been unfairly condemned before the facts of the case are known.
“We’re coming here open-minded – we’d like to hear the facts,” said Trevor Atkinson, who has met Pell previously. “It’s really a matter of giving him a fair go.”
As Pell left the courthouse, a dozen Victoria police officers formed a protective circle around him, pushing their way through a media scrum as protesters and supporters shouted at the cardinal.
“We love you Cardinal Pell!” one woman yelled, while another screamed: “You were supposed to protect the children!”
The case places both the cardinal and the Pope in potentially perilous territory. For Pell, the charges are a threat to his freedom, his reputation and his career. For Francis, they are a threat to his credibility, given he famously promised a “zero tolerance” policy for sex abuse in the church.
So far, Francis has withheld judgment of Pell, saying he wants to wait for Australian justice to run its course. And he did not force the cardinal to resign, though Pell took an immediate leave of absence so he could return to Australia to fight the charges. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church’s economy ministry once the case is resolved.
The cardinal is next expected in court on 6 October.