By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Victoria Police have confirmed that Australia’s highest ranking Catholic has been charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, including one of rape, in relation to allegations of criminal conduct in the 1970s.
The charges follow months of speculation about whether police would follow through on the complaints against the Cardinal, with many now sceptical about whether he will personally attend court.
The notice to appear was served on Mr Pell’s lawyers in Melbourne, requiring him to attend Melbourne Magistrates Court on 18 July 2017.
No special treatment
Victorian Police say the proceedings against Pell will be pursued with the same vigour as for anyone else charged with child sex offences.
“He has been treated same as anyone else in this investigation”, said a police spokesperson.
At the same time, police say he will be afforded his right to due process, including the presumption of innocence until and unless he is proven guilty, and that the integrity of the process will not be hindered by external factors.
Last July, Victoria Police confirmed they were formally investigating historical child sex allegations made by two men from his hometown of Ballarat.
The men allege Pell touched them inappropriately during the summer of 1978/79, while swimming with them at the town’s pool. The allegations emerged during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Last October, three Victoria Police detectives flew to Rome to interview Pell, reporting that the Cardinal had co-operated with the process.
Pell has always maintained his innocence and vehemently denies any wrongdoing. Last year, he claimed the allegations were part of a smear campaign against him by the media.
Pell could avoid attending
While the Cardinal has been ordered to appear in court, many are concerned he will raise medical grounds or rely on the absence of an extradition treaty between the Vatican City and Australia to avoid returning.
Indeed, he declined to appear at two public hearings of the Royal Commission in 2015, citing health problems which he claimed made it difficult for him to travel. He ultimately participated in the hearing by way of audio-visual link.
However, a statement from the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says the Cardinal intends to return to face the allegations against him.
“Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements”, the statement reads.
“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.”