An Australian court has ruled that the Vatican’s finance chief, Cardinal George Pell, stand trial on historical sex offenses, making him the highest-ranking Catholic priest ever to be indicted on such charges.
Melbourne magistrate Belinda Wallington said at a hearing on Tuesday that she was “satisfied” there was enough evidence for the case to proceed to a trial on “multiple” charges.
However, at least half of the charges against Pell, including some of the most serious, were thrown out.
During the hearing, the 76-year-old priest pleaded not guilty. He has denied any wrongdoing since first being charged in 2017.
He was released on bail on the condition that he not leave Australia as another hearing is due on Wednesday to discuss a trial date.
The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop took a leave of absence from the Vatican last year, returning to his home country to face the charges, which relate to incidents that allegedly took place long ago.
The cardinal arrived in the court surrounded by police while protesters gathered outside the courtroom, carrying placards condemning child abuse and Pell.
Lisa Flynn, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of abuse victims in civil litigation claims in Australia, said the ruling proved no one was above the law.
“The charging of Pell for these alleged crimes reinforces [the idea] that people should be and are treated equally in the eyes of the law,” she said. “This is a promising step forward for victims of sexual assault.”
Meanwhile, an Australian national inquiry into child sex abuse allegations concluded last year. The commission has reportedly interviewed thousands of victims and heard claims of child abuse at churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups, and schools.
The Roman Catholic Church has been hit by numerous scandals over the past few years, involving allegations of covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests to protect pedophiles and the reputation of the Church.