MELBOURNE, Australia – The most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis made his first court appearance in Australia today in a scandal that has stunned the Holy See and threatened to tarnish the pope's image as a crusader against abusive clergy.
Cardinal George Pell, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis' top financial adviser, has maintained his innocence since he was charged last month with sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the 76-year-old have yet to be released to the public.
Though he has not yet entered a plea, his lawyer, Robert Richter, told the court that Pell planned to formally plead not guilty at a future court date.
In recent years, Pell's actions as archbishop came under particular scrutiny by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the nation's highest form of inquiry – revealed earlier this year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades.
In testimony to the commission last year, Pell conceded that he had made mistakes by often believing priests over those who said they had been abused. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued abuse victims in his hometown of Ballarat.
Over the past year, the allegations against Pell moved beyond the way he had handled cases of abuse to accusations that he, himself, had committed abuse.
Police and prosecutors must present their brief of evidence to Pell's legal team by Sept. 8. The cardinal is next expected in court on Oct. 6.
Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis' decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place; at the time of his promotion in 2014, Pell was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church's economy ministry once the case is resolved.
In 2014, Francis created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about the best ways to fight abuse and protect children. But the commission suffered a credibility setback when two members who were abuse survivors left in frustration. And the commission's signature proposal – a tribunal to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse – was scrapped by the pope himself after Vatican officials objected.