Pell to Stand Trial over Child Sexual Assault Allegations

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Cardinal George Pell priest

The Melbourne Magistrates Court has committed Cardinal George Pell to stand trial over multiple historical child sexual assault allegations.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington found there is enough evidence for Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric to stand trial. However, the court discharged the Cardinal of a number of serious charges due to the unreliability of the complainant evidence.

Other charges were previously withdrawn due to a complainant being “medically unfit to give evidence” and another passing away.

Charges dismissed

Defence barrister Robert Richter QC said the most “vile” of the charges had been dismissed. Pell will now stand trial over about half of the offences he had been charged with.

In throwing out one charge, Magistrate Wallington said the complainant demonstrated such a “cavalier attitude” towards testifying that he was unlikely to be believed by a jury.

Her Honour remarked that inconsistencies in complainant evidence had to be examined in the context of a “fundamental defect in the evidence”.

“The evidence as a whole is not a sufficient weight for a jury to convict,” she determined.

It should be borne in mind that a committal hearing is an administrative proceeding only, and the DPP is at liberty to ‘revive’ the charges that were dismissed through what is known as an ‘ex officio indictment’.

The DPP has not indicated whether it intends to revive the charges in this way. If it does, the Cardinal will have to face trial for those charges.

Lengthy investigation

Charges were laid against Mr Pell last year after a lengthy investigation by Victoria Police into multiple complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct, which came to light during the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse.

The Cardinal was accused of committing sexual offences at a Ballarat pool in the 1970s and at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s, when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

Mr Pell was permitted to give evidence to the Royal Commission via video link, after his defence lawyers submitted a medical report to the effect that travelling to Australia could increase his risk of heart failure.

The fact Pell was not required to give evidence in person angered many complainants and their families, who have long accused Pell of ignoring and covering up child sexual abuse by Catholic Priests.

The Commission also heard testimony that Pell even actively attempted to bribe a complainant into keeping quiet.

Allegations are vehemently denied

The evidence at the Royal Commission led to the creation of special police taskforce SANO, which began looking into a number of allegations against Cardinal Pell, officers flew to Rome to interview him.

Mr Pell accused police of leaking information about him to the media, and the ABC of “mounting a smear campaign” against him. The Cardinal has gone so far as to call for a government inquiry into the alleged leaks, and for those responsible to be made accountable.

He has always strenuously denied any wrongdoing, although this is the first time he has had to enter a formal plea of not guilty.

A County Court will be tasked to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for the Cardinal to be found guilty, on charges including that he engaged in sexual acts against children at the Ballarat pool.

It is important to bear in mind that – like anyone else accused of a crime – Mr Pell is to be presumed innocent until and unless the prosecution is able to prove otherwise.

Granted bail

The Cardinal has been granted bail on a number of conditions, including that he relinquish his passport. He is prohibited from leaving Australia.

The Magistrates Court’s ruling follows a month-long committal hearing in March. The first 10 days of the hearing were closed to the public as the complainants gave their evidence, which remains confidential. This is standard practice in cases involving allegations of child sexual offences.

The Vatican has issued a statement saying the Cardinal’s leave of absence would remain in place. Last year, the Vatican granted Pell leave to deal with the accusations.

It’s expected that a trial date will be set today.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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