MELBOURNE, Australia - The most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis is set to appear in an Australian court on Monday in a hearing to test whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to try him.
Australian Cardinal George Pell's committal hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates Court before Magistrate Belinda Wallington is scheduled to take up to a month, with testimony of alleged victims likely to be suppressed from publication.
Pope Francis' former finance minister was charged in June of last year with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the 76-year-old cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as "historical" sexual assault offences — meaning the crimes are alleged to have occurred decades ago.
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 that he famously promised a "zero tolerance" policy for sex abuse in the church. Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis' decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place.
When Pell was promoted in 2014, he was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
Pell has not yet entered a plea. But his lawyer Robert Richter has told the court that the 76-year-old cardinal plans to formally plead not guilty.
One of the charges was withdrawn last week because the accuser had died.
Pell's lawyers told the court last month that the allegations stemmed from publicity surrounding a national inquiry into child abuse three years ago.
His lawyer, Ruth Shann, said the first complainant approached police in 2015, 40 years after the alleged crimes, in response to media reports about Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Australia's longest-running royal commission — which is the country's highest form of inquiry — had been investigating since 2012 how the Catholic Church and other institutions responded to sexual abuse of children in Australia over 90 years. The inquiry issued its final report in December.
Pell testified to the inquiry in a video link from the Vatican in 2016 about his time as a priest and bishop in Australia.
Shann said the first complaint set off a chain of events with others making allegations against Pell. None had previously complained to anyone, Shann said.
After years of alleged coverups and silence from the church over its pedophilia scandal, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a monumental shift in the way society is responding to the crisis.
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. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church's economy ministry once the case is resolved.