SYDNEY — Cardinal George Pell was ordered by an Australian magistrate to face trial over sexual abuse allegations, a decision that may make him the most senior Roman Catholic prelate to be forced to defend himself in court over a scandal that has swept through Catholic communities around the world.
After being told in a courtroom that he would face trial, Pell was asked how he pleaded. “Not guilty,” the 76-year-old answered in a firm, loud voice, according to reporters present.
Pell rose through the ranks of the church in Australia to become archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney. Five years ago, he was appointed one of eight cardinals by Pope Francis to work out how to overhaul the administrative structures of the church, which are known as the Roman curia. The following year he was placed in charge of the Vatican’s economic affairs. He has taken a leave of absence for the court case.
After a month-long pretrial hearing in which Pell was defended by one of Australia’s top criminal lawyers, the magistrate, Belinda Wallington, dismissed some of the more serious assault charges made against Pell by the Victoria state police force.
She ruled that other charges would go ahead: that Pell groped two boys’ genitals at a swimming pool in the regional city of Ballarat in the 1970s, where he was born, and ordained in 1966; and assaulted two choristers at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he was the city’s archbishop in the 1990s.
Because the allegations concern offenses against children, most of the details have been legally suppressed and the court was closed to the public during part of the pretrial hearing.
“Cardinal George Pell has at all times fully cooperated with Victoria Police and always and steadfastly maintained his innocence,” a statement from his lawyers said. “He has voluntarily returned to Australia to meet these accusations. He will defend the remaining charges.”
A conviction is far from certain. Pell’s lawyers are likely to seek to undermine prosecution witnesses. The long time it took for the cases to reach court could work in Pell’s favor by dimming the memory of those called to give evidence.
“These are very difficult matters for everyone involved and no one is going to be popping champagne corks over this,” Louise Milligan, an investigative journalist and witness in the case whose reporting uncovered some of Pell’s accusers, said in a telephone interview.
Pell has apologized for the pain inflicted upon the church’s victims, and church officials say he became the first Catholic bishop, in 1996, to institute a formal restitution program.
But his patrician manner and perceived lack of empathy toward victims under his watch made Pell the focus of much anger in the disgruntled Catholic community.
A five-year national judicial inquiry into institutional sexual abuse that concluded last year received more complaints about the Catholic Church than any other organization. Ballarat was a hot spot of abuse: 140 people told the inquiry they were abused there between 1980 and 2015.
Those who complained usually received a dismissive response. Church leaders settled allegations in favor of the priests, or moved them to another district where several were able to continue abusing children, the inquiry found.
“This case study exposed a catastrophic failure in the leadership of the Diocese and ultimately in the structure and culture of the Church over decades to effectively respond to the sexual abuse of children by its priests,” the inquiry said last December.
During the pretrial hearing, Pell’s lawyer challenged the reliability of witnesses’ memories and their psychological states. At one point, the lawyer, Robert Richter, accused the magistrate of bias and asked her to step down from the case. She declined.
On Tuesday, the hearing’s final day, the courtroom was packed with victim advocates, Pell’s supporters and journalists. After the magistrate read the judgment and left the room, there was clapping from the public section of the court.
As Pell walked from the building on bail, through a phalanx of police officers there to protect him, he was jeered.