Melbourne, Australia (CNN)Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell will stand trial on multiple counts of historical sexual abuse, the most senior figure in the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for alleged assault.
Melbourne Magistrate Belinda Wallington delivered her decision Tuesday morning after a month-long committal hearing in March that heard evidence from a large number of witnesses.
Wallington dropped half the charges but found there was enough evidence to commit Pell, one of the country’s most senior Catholic figures, to trial on multiple counts.
Pell, who has long protested his innocence, didn’t show any emotion as the decision was announced. When asked to enter a plea, the cardinal said in a loud, clear voice, “not guilty.”
At the end of the hearing the prosecution confirmed Pell had already handed in his passport and he was not allowed to leave the country.
Tuesday’s decision to send Pell’s case to trial will be a shock to an already embattled Catholic Church, which has been fighting allegations of abuse among its clergy for decades.
Thousands of cases brought to light around the world have led to investigations and convictions in countries including the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia.
The charges relate to claims of historical sexual abuse spanning three decades and include events that allegedly took place at a swimming pool in rural Victoria in the 1970s and at St Patrick’s Cathedral during Pell’s time as Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
In a statement released Tuesday, Pell’s legal team said its client “steadfastly” maintained his innocence. “He will defend the remaining charges. He would like to thank all those who have supported him from both here in Australia and overseas during this exacting time,” the statement said.
The Vatican stood by Pell in a statement released Tuesday, saying they had “taken note” of the court’s decision. “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 statement said.
The 76-year-old cardinal arrived in court Tuesday morning to a huge police presence for the decision that followed weeks of evidence from multiple complainants who detailed alleged abuse stretching as far back as the 1970s.
The hearings grew fiery at times as Pell’s defense lawyer, Robert Richter, sought to avoid the charges going to trial, including asking Wallington to exclude herself from the proceedings.
The defense had argued any trial it would be a “waste of public money, time and effort.” Richter said the allegations were an attempt to destroy the cardinal’s reputation.
The Australian cardinal was charged last June and given leave by Pope Francis from the Vatican to contest the charges in his native country. After the announcement of the charges was made in June 2017, he said the idea of sexual abuse was “abhorrent” to him.
When allegations of historical sexual abuse by Cardinal Pell first came to light in 2016 the Pope stressed that “we must avoid a media verdict based on gossip.”
“It’s in the hands of the justice system and one cannot judge before the justice system,” he said. “After the justice system speaks, I will speak.”
In January, CNN revealed Pell is saying at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney, with 40 trainee priests while he fights the case.
The pre-trial process will start at Melbourne’s County Court at 9 a.m. local time Wednesday.
Pell’s rapid rise was a source of pride for many Catholic Australians, as he quickly rose from a rural parish priest to the highest offices of the Vatican.
In 1996, thirty years after he was first ordained as a priest, Pell was made archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II. Less than a decade later, Pell was appointed as archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and then made a cardinal in 2003.
But his greatest honor came in 2014 when he was handpicked by Pope Francis to become one of only nine advisers on the Council of Cardinals to the head of the Catholic Church.
In December 2017, a Royal Commission in Australia made recommendations that the Vatican should move to change ancient canon laws in order to reduce future risk of sexual abuse.
The recommendations included making celibacy voluntary for priests and making mandatory reporting of abuse to police if an admission is made during confession.
In a statement Friday, the Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart declined to make any comment in relation to the decision on Pell, saying he had confidence in the judicial system in Australia. “Justice must now take its course,” he said.
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