MELBOURNE, Australia – The alleged victims of the most senior Vatican official charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis finished testifying to an Australian court Wednesday.
A hearing began last week in the Melbourne Magistrate Court to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put Australian Cardinal George Pell on trial.
Pope Francis’ 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 76-year-old cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offences — meaning the events are alleged to have occurred decades ago.
The courtroom had been closed to the public and media while alleged victims testified by a video link from an undisclosed location but was reopened Wednesday afternoon after the final alleged victim gave evidence.
The first witness to testify in open court was Bernard Barrett, a volunteer researcher for Broken Rites, an advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse.
Barrett told the court he received an email from an alleged victim’s mother in late 2014.
Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, accused Barrett and Broken Rites of making up allegations and trying to “pin” offences on Australia’s highest-ranked Catholic.
“You advocate publicly and you rile publicly against the Catholic Church in particular,” Richter said.
“You make up representations on the website and elsewhere accusing the church of covering up sexual abuse, is that right?” Richter added.
Barrett replied, “We don’t rile or make up accusations, we just state the facts.”
The father of an alleged victim who died from a drug overdose in 2014 also gave evidence via video on Wednesday before the hearing was adjourned.
The father cannot be identified.
The committal hearing is scheduled to take up to a month. Pell has said he will plead not guilty if Magistrate Belinda Wallington rules that prosecutors have a strong enough case to warrant a jury trial.
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 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. When Pell was promoted to the Vatican in 2014, he was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
After years of alleged coverups and silence from the church over its pedophilia scandal, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a monumental shift in the way society is responding to the crisis.
So far, Francis has withheld judgment of Pell, saying he wants to wait for Australian justice to run its course. And he did not force the cardinal to resign. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church’s economy ministry once the case is resolved.
This story has been corrected to show the advocacy group’s name is Broken Rites, not Broken Rights.