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Cardinal George Pell: Vatican treasurer faces historical sexual offences trial.
Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic and the controller of the Vatican’s finances in Rome, has pleaded not guilty after he was ordered to stand trial over historical sexual offence allegations.
Pell has always denied the allegations against him, but it was the first time he had been required to enter a formal plea.
Many of the most serious allegations were dismissed in the Melbourne magistrates’ court on Tuesday, with witnesses described as unreliable and lacking credibility. But a number of charges were ordered to go to trial. Further details of the nature of the charges are unable to be reported for legal reasons.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington handed down the decision following a committal hearing that lasted almost a month throughout March and April. Pell was surrounded by police as he was quickly ushered into the court just before 9.30am, and was met by a small crowd of supporters and opponents.
Wallington told the court that if the evidence was not of sufficient weight to support a conviction, an allegation must be discharged. If the credibility of a witness was destroyed during a committal, their allegation could not go to trial, she said. Cases so weak a jury could not possibly convict a defendant had to be thrown out.
A number of charges had been withdrawn during the committal hearing. Wallington found it was impossible that a further group of charges relating to one complainant could be sustained. The offences were alleged to have occurred over 12 months and the complainant alleged he was removed from the St Joseph’s boys home and from his dorm, and taken to the locations where he alleged the offences occurred.
George Pell committal: tension, theatre and tedium in courtroom 22
But Wallington found the series of offences could not have occurred in the period alleged by the complainant, from late September 1978, because records showed the complainant did not live at the home during this time. His foster mother also gave evidence the complainant did not live in the boys home during that time.
“He [the complainant] could not reconcile the differences,” Wallington said. “In this case the inconsistencies must be examined as a fundamental defect in evidence.” She said this had damaged the complainant’s reliability. “I find [his] evidence as a whole is not of sufficient weight for a jury to convict,” she said.
A further allegation made by a separate complainant was also thrown out by Wallington. The complainant had a “cavalier attitude” towards the court, Wallington found, and sometimes cited a lack of recall to avoid answering questions.
“It is difficult to see how a jury can convict on the evidence of a man who cannot recall what he said one minute ago,” Wallington said, even when considering the trauma of giving evidence. “I am not satisfied the evidence is of sufficient weight to support a conviction.”
But she was satisfied a jury could hear the evidence from multiple complainants.
The nature of those allegations cannot be detailed for legal reasons.
Pell’s defence team said one group of charges was “substantially different” to another group, and indicated they might push for separate trials as a result.
Throughout the committal Pell sat each day in courtroom 22 in the same seat, head bowed, sometimes taking notes, always dressed in the same outfit: black pants, black shirt and a beige jacket. The first days of the committal hearing, which began on 5 March, were closed to the media and the public while complainants gave evidence – a standard procedure for cases involving sexual offence allegations.
When the hearing was reopened to the media and the public, Pell’s defence lawyer, Robert Richter, cross-examined former choir boys and staff of St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne, senior police officers, family members of the complainants and staff from other venues where offences were alleged to have occurred. Pell’s defence team argued that the evidence was uncorroborated and unreliable, and that police had sometimes failed to properly take notes.
Wallington ordered those who had previously given evidence or who might be required to give evidence in a trial to leave the court before she handed down her decision. A date for the trial is yet to be set. A directions hearing will be held on Wednesday to go over a number of administrative matters.
A statement released on behalf of Pell through law firm Galbally and O’Bryan on Tuesday afternoon said Pell would like to thank his supporters for their “continuing support and prayers”.
“He will defend the remaining charges,” the statement said.
A statement from the Vatican said that Pell would remain on leave during the trial: “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.”