Australian Cardinal George Pell, the most senior member of the Catholic Church to be charged in the organization’s ongoing sex abuse scandal, is finally heading to trial to face charges.
Pell, who served as a top financial advisor to Pope Francis, was previously charged with “historical sex offenses.” He has continually denied abuse allegations against him, and he filed a “not guilty” plea, but ultimately the jury will decide if there’s enough evidence to convict.
Pell is already on a losing streak in this case. His attorneys have been fighting tooth and nail to keep the prosecution from bringing any charges, hoping to keep their client away from a courtroom, but they just lost that fight.
Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic will appear for the first time on Wednesday in the Victoria state County Court, where he has been ordered to stand trial at a date yet to be set.
Lawyers for Pell, Pope Francis’ finance minister, have been fighting the allegations since before he was charged last June with allegations of sexual abuse against multiples people in Victoria from the time he was a priest in his hometown of Ballarat in the 1970s until the 1990s, when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington on Tuesday dismissed about half the charges that had been heard in a four-week preliminary hearing in Melbourne but decided the prosecution’s case was strong enough for the remainder to warrant a trial by jury. The details of the allegations and the number of charges have not been made public.
It’s unfortunate that the specifics about the charges are being kept from the public, but we have some hints. For instance, we know Pell was accused of covering up for priests as Archbishop of Melbourne between 1996 and 2001. Considering the breadth of this trial, my guess is much more will come.
The Vatican hasn’t said much about Pell’s upcoming sex abuse trial. The church did, however, confirm that Pell is on a “leave of absence” to “defend himself from the accusations.”
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke issued statement saying: “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell. 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.”
The decision to make Pell stand trial is definitely a groundbreaking one, and I look forward to seeing a jury follow the evidence on this, but some people have high hopes about potential impact of the trial itself. Regardless of the verdict, the case could change the game in terms of accountability, according to one online activist group.
Anne Barrett Doyle, of BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts-based online abuse resource, described the magistrate’s decision to make Pell stand trial as “a turning point in the global abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.”
“Whatever its outcome, the judge’s decision marks the victory of accountability over impunity, and of the rule of secular law over the Vatican’s failed strategy of cover-up,” she said.
There’s no telling if this trial will live up to the hype, but Doyle is definitely right about one thing: this is a win for secular authority over often-biased internal “investigations.” Let’s just hope this sets a precedent for cases going forward.
(Screenshot via YouTube)