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Cardinal Pell facing Australian court on sex abuse charges

Cardinal George Pell (center) left a Melboune court after Monday’s hearing.
Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Associated Press
Cardinal George Pell (center) left a Melboune court after Monday’s hearing.

MELBOURNE — The alleged victims of the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis began giving secret evidence to an Australian court on Monday.

Australian Cardinal George Pell wore his clerical collar for the first day of the hearing in the Melbourne Magistrate Court to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put him on trial. The committal hearing is scheduled to take up to a month.The testimony of alleged victims was suppressed from publication and the courtroom was closed to the public and media. Prosecutor Mark Gibson said the complainants would give evidence by a video link.

Pope Francis’s former finance minister was charged in June with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the cardinal have yet to be released to the public.

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Monday’s testimony of alleged victims was suppressed from publication and the courtroom was closed to the public and media.

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Their testimony, which is expected to take up to two weeks, proceeded for two hours before the court was adjourned until Tuesday morning.

Prosecutor Mark Gibson had earlier told Magistrate Belinda Wallington that the complainants would give evidence by a video link.

Wallington gave permission for one of complainants to be accompanied by what Gibson described a “support dog” while giving evidence.

Defense lawyer Robert Richter questioned whether the dog was necessary, saying, “I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people.”

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Wallington replied, “No, they’re also there for vulnerable and traumatized people.”

Pell was flanked by police and defense lawyer Paul Galbally as he walked through a large group of media and into the court security screening area. He was silent as he entered, though he indicated to a security guard he had no objection to the routine security pat-down of Pell’s light-colored jacket, black shirt and black trousers.

Other security guards ensured the public kept their distance from the 76-year-old cleric in the foyers of the courthouse in Australia’s second-largest city, where he was once archbishop.

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.