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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Vatican's Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty in sex abuse trial

The 76-year-old aide to Pope Francis faces historical sex offence charges in Australia

Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell arrives in court under a heavy police presence in Melbourne on May 1, 2018. The 76-year-old Catholic cleric may face criminal charges linked to the Church's long-running sexual abuse scandal. William West / AFP
Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell arrives in court under a heavy police presence in Melbourne on May 1, 2018. The 76-year-old Catholic cleric may face criminal charges linked to the Church's long-running sexual abuse scandal. William West / AFP

Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell became the highest-ranked Catholic to be sent to trial over historical sex offences on Tuesday.

The cardinal, 76, was impassive throughout the hearing in Melbourne that ordered him to face a jury on several charges, although half of the allegations against him, including some of the most serious, were thrown out.

"Not guilty," the top aide to Pope Francis said loudly and without hesitation when asked his plea, a stance he has taken since being charged last year.

Melbourne Magistrate Belinda Wallington said she was "satisfied" there was enough evidence for a trial on a clutch of charges, with a directions hearing due on Wednesday to discuss a trial date.

Cardinal Pell, who entered the court surrounded by a large police presence, was released on bail on the condition he does not leave Australia. He has already handed in his passport, the court heard.

The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has been on leave from the Vatican, returning to Australia to fight the allegations which relate to alleged incidents from the 1970s.

"Cardinal George Pell has at all times fully co-operated with Victoria Police and always and steadfastly maintained his innocence," said a statement issued through the Archdiocese of Sydney and attributed to Cardinal Pell.

"He has voluntarily returned to Australia to meet these accusations. He will defend the remaining charges."

The exact details and nature of the claims remain confidential, other than that they involve "multiple complainants".

But some of the alleged offending was at a swimming pool in Ballarat in Victoria in the 1970s and at Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral in the 1990s, the court heard.

Some of the most serious allegations were dismissed due to inconsistencies in the evidence, including claims of offending at a cinema in Ballarat.

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 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."

Cardinal Pell's case has coincided with an Australian national inquiry into child sexual abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission spoke to thousands of victims and heard claims of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Cardinal Pell appeared before it three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome over the Church's handling of complaints against paedophile priests.

Australia's Catholic leaders have previously spoken out in support of him, describing Cardinal Pell as a "thoroughly decent man".

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne on Tuesday said Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart would be making no comment.

But it said "Archbishop Hart expressed his confidence in the judicial system in Australia and said that justice must now take its course".

The Catholic Church globally has been plagued by allegations of sex abuse among priests, with the scandals haunting the papacy of Pope Francis, who in February announced the Vatican was reviving its anti-paedophile panel.

It followed a trip to Chile in January that was seen as a resounding failure after the Pope defended a bishop accused of covering up the crimes of a paedophile priest.