Cardinal Pell returns to court to fight sexual offence charges

Cardinal George Pell arrives for the court hearing in Melbourne Image copyright EPA
Image caption Cardinal George Pell arrives at a court in Melbourne on Monday

Cardinal George Pell has returned to an Australian court for a hearing that will determine whether he stands trial on sexual assault charges.

The Catholic cleric, 76, has strongly denied what police have described as historical accusations by "multiple complainants" in the state of Victoria.

He will plead not guilty to all charges, his lawyer said last year.

The court hearing in Melbourne is expected to run for a month. Much of it will be closed to the public and media.

Cardinal Pell was given a police escort into the Melbourne Magistrates' Court on Monday as dozens of media representatives and bystanders watched on.

Inside, his lawyer, Robert Richter QC, accused police of investigating the cardinal with a "presumption of guilt".

Who is Cardinal Pell?

Australia's most senior Catholic figure is considered the third-ranking official at the Vatican, where he is in charge of the Church's finances.

Last year, Cardinal Pell took a leave of absence from the Vatican to fight the sexual assault charges in Australia.

What is known about the allegations?

Last June, Victoria Police charged Cardinal Pell with "multiple" sexual offence charges involving "multiple complainants".

Authorities described the accusations as historical, but did not give further details. On Friday, prosecutors dropped one charge.

Last year, Cardinal Pell said: "I am innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption About 50 witnesses are expected to give evidence at the month-long hearing

In a hearing in October, Cardinal Pell's barrister, Robert Richter QC, said he intended to prove that "what was alleged was impossible".

What happened on Monday?

During a 25-minute administrative hearing, Mr Richter argued that Victoria Police had not followed correct procedure in their investigation.

"We say that was not followed because there was a presumption of guilt," he said.

He also accused police of not properly investigating witness statements that had been provided by the defence.

The court was later closed to the public for witnesses to give evidence, as required by state law in sexual offence cases.

What will happen next?

As many as 50 witnesses are expected to testify in closed sessions for up to two weeks. The committal hearing is likely to run for four weeks in total, local media said.

The first witnesses were expected to give testimony via video link late on Monday.

At the end of committal hearing, Magistrate Belinda Wallington will decide whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to a trial in the County Court of Victoria.

The cardinal may then be required to enter a plea.

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