MELBOURNE, Australia — The most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis must stand trial on charges alleging he sexually abused multiple victims decades ago, a magistrate ruled Tuesday.
Around half the charges against Australian Cardinal George Pell that were heard in the four-week preliminary hearing in Melbourne were dismissed by Magistrate Belinda Wallington. However, she also decided the prosecution's case was strong enough for the remainder to warrant a trial by jury. The number of charges has not been made public.
When she asked Pell how he pleaded, the cardinal said in a firm voice, "Not guilty." Wallington gave the 76-year-old permission not to stand, which is customary.
When the magistrate left the room at the end of the hearing, many people in the packed public gallery broke into applause.
Pell's plea marked the only words he spoke in public. Wearing a cleric's collar, white shirt and dark suit, he was silent as he entered and left the downtown courthouse with his lawyer Robert Richter. More than 40 uniformed police officers maintained order on the crowded sidewalk outside.
The cardinal's legal team found some solace in the outcome, with Richter telling the magistrate "the most vile allegations" had been dismissed.
Lawyers for Australia's highest-ranking Catholic had argued that all the accusations were untrue, could not be proved and should be dismissed.
Pell, who is Pope Francis' former finance minister, was charged last June with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the cleric have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as "historical" sexual assault offenses — meaning the crimes allegedly occurred decades ago.
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 last 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 in 2016, Pell conceded that he had made mistakes by often believing priests over people 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.