Australia

Cardinal Pell charges: How will the process unfold?

Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on as he makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office, Vatican city Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cardinal George Pell says he will return to Australia to defend himself in court

The third-ranking official in the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell, has said he will strenuously defend himself against allegations of sexual assaults.

"I'm looking forward finally to having my day in court," he said on Thursday.

On Friday, Australian police confirmed his first opportunity would be on 26 July - eight days later than first scheduled - when he is due to appear at a hearing in Melbourne.

The process is expected to draw intense international interest.

What do we know about the accusations?

Little at this stage. Police in the state of Victoria said Cardinal Pell, 76, was accused of "historical" assaults and there were "multiple complainants".

But they did not detail the charges or specify the number of alleged victims.

A magistrate will decide next week whether to make details of the alleged incidents public.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton reveals the charges on Thursday

Cardinal Pell has emphatically denied the accusations.

Why is this happening now?

In February, police handed a brief of evidence to state prosecutors seeking legal advice.

Prosecutors gave their input last month, and police said they would "take time to consider the advice".

On Thursday, they decided to serve charges on Cardinal Pell's legal representatives in Melbourne.

Cardinal Pell complained that he had been subjected to "relentless character assassination" during a two-year investigation into the "false" claims.

How long will the legal process take?

Melbourne-based media lawyer Justin Quill predicts it could be lengthy, potentially lasting years.

He also said it would be common - in legal process terms - for Cardinal Pell not to appear in person at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court on 26 July.

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Media captionCardinal Pell: "I am innocent of these charges, they are false"

"It will only be an initial hearing on procedural issues and it is normal for a defendant not to be present - especially where they normally reside overseas," he told the BBC.

Cardinal Pell was questioned by Australian detectives in the Vatican last year after saying he was too unwell to take a long flight to Australia.

In a statement on Thursday, the Vatican treasurer said he would return to Australia "to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements".

Who will pay the legal costs?

Not the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, according to the cleric who succeeded Cardinal Pell as archbishop of the Australian city.

"While the Archdiocese will assist with the Cardinal's accommodation and support, as it would for any of its bishops or priests, it is not responsible for the Cardinal's legal bills arising from these matters," said Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher.

"Victims should be listened to with respect and compassion, and their complaints investigated and dealt with according to law."

Will it damage the Church?

The Catholic Church worldwide has in recent years faced a damaging series of allegations relating to sex abuse by priests, and claims that these cases were covered up.

Father Kevin Dillon, a Catholic priest and vocal supporter of abuse survivors, said the charges would have a "devastating impact" on morale in the Church.

"The whole abuse saga has been so ugly for so long, and now this," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

"So many Catholics will be devastated that these complaints have reached such heights in the Church."

The BBC's David Willey said the saga is seen as a punishing body-blow to the reputation and credibility of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.

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