Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell made his first appearance in an Australian court on historical sex abuse charges on Wednesday, facing a massive media scrum before the primarily administrative hearing.
The 76-year-old, a top adviser to Pope Francis, returned from Rome earlier this month to face multiple charges in Melbourne relating to offences allegedly committed decades ago when he was a senior cleric in Australia.
Details of the charges have not been made public although police said they involved “multiple complainants”. The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has always maintained his innocence.
Pell has not yet entered a plea. On Wednesday, his lawyer Robert Richter told the court Pell planned to plead not guilty at a future court date.
Pell, looking sombre and frail, made no comment as he was escorted by a group of police officers through a crush of cameras, reporters and photographers outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court, which hears hundreds of cases a week for alleged crimes ranging from theft to murder.
He was not required to attend the brief hearing, which allows lawyers to discuss when the prosecution brief can be handed over and set out the next dates in what is expected to be a lengthy court process.
But Australia’s most powerful Catholic opted to appear, having previously vowed to defend himself and clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29.
“I am innocent of these charges; they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said in Rome last month.
Pell supporter Trevor Atkinson and several other members of his church burst into applause to support Pell as he walked into the court.
“We’re coming here open-minded – we’d like to hear the facts,” Atkinson told The Associated Press. “It’s really a matter of giving him a fair go.”
Outside the court, demonstrator Julie Cameron of Melbourne held up a painting of Mary cradling an infant Jesus. The image, she said, was symbolic of the duty the church has to protect children.
“This is where the actual Catholic Church has to go through renewal – it has to acknowledge the crimes that were committed on children,” Cameron said.
Al Jazeera’s Yaara Bou Melhem, reporting from Melbourne, said this was an unprecedented case.
“No cardinal in the modern era, in a free society, has ever had criminal offences levelled against him,” she said.
“And this is not just any cardinal; this is the Vatican number three, this is a career priest, at the climax of his career, who has been hand-picked by Pope Francis to go to the Vatican to clean up and bring order and transparency to the Medieval structure of the Vatican finances.”
The Vatican’s number three
Despite being unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, no special arrangements were in place at the court. He entered the building through the front door and was screened by security.
The pre-eminent cleric has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican’s powerful economic ministry.
In testimony to an Australian government-backed inquiry into child abuse last year, Pell said the Catholic Church had made “catastrophic” choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish, and relying too heavily on the counsel of priests to solve the problem.
But for years, Pell had faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he served as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via videolink from Rome. In one hearing, he admitted that he “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
More recently, Pell became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican to interview him last year.
Pell is free in the run-up to his court hearing, during which he may formally apply for bail.
“There are questions over whether Pope Francis can leave [Pell’s] important position open for so long if this case in Australia goes on for years,” said Al Jazeera’s Yaara Bou Melhem.
“So it does seem that his career at the Vatican would be over.”
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies
Pope to meet the Mafia: Vatican brushes off danger warnings as Francis prepares to travel to Mob heartland Calabria and hometown of toddler murdered in drug war
- Pope Francis will spend day in hometown of toddler murdered in mob hit
- Will also visit a prison, a hospital and a care home in Cassano allo Ionio
- Calabria visit comes as Vatican is forced to deny claims Pope Francis is ill
- He has abruptly suspended a large number of engagements until September
Pope Francis will travel to the mafia heartland of Calabria for the first time on Saturday to spend a day in the hometown of a toddler who was murdered in a clan drug war.
His tightly packed schedule in one of the poorest regions of Italy will see the pontiff visit a prison, hospital and care home in and around Cassano allo Ionio before celebrating mass with an expected 100,000 pilgrims.
The visit comes as the Vatican was forced to deny claims Francis is ill following an abrupt decision to cancel his popular morning Mass until September, and all general mid-week audiences in July.
Threat: Pope Francis’ determination to rattle organised crime groups – such as Saturday’s visit to Calabria – has sparked warnings that he himself could become a target for the mafia
During his visit to Calabria, the pope is expected to speak out about two of the region’s biggest challenges: towering youth unemployment and the pervasive grip of the immensely powerful and secretive ‘Ndrangheta crime group.
Unemployment among the under-25s in the region stands at 56.1 per cent – the highest in Italy in 2013 according to Eurostat – and local mobsters thrive by offering idle youngsters well-paid work, luring them into their networks.
The Argentine pope has previously denounced Italy’s mafia organisations – which also include Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and Stidda, Campania’s Comorra and Puglia’s Sacra Corona Unita – warning mobsters to relinquish their ‘bloodstained money’ which ‘cannot be taken to heaven’.
Tragic: Cassano allo Ionio was home to Nicola ‘Coco’ Campolongo (pictured), a three-year-old shot dead in January alongside his grandfather in a suspected mafia hit
Pope Francis will spend Saturday in the villages of Castrovillari and Cassano allo Jonio in Calabria – a region in southern Italy that is under the pervasive grip of the immensely powerful and secretive ‘Ndrangheta mafia
After meeting relatives of mafia victims in May – including the families of butchered children and priests – he told gangsters that they would ‘go to hell’ if they did not repent.
When John Paul II voiced a similar threat in Sicily in 1993, Cosa Nostra responded by bombing two historic churches in Rome.
Francis’s determination to rattle organised crime groups has sparked warnings that he himself could become a target for the mafia.
In November, respected Calabrian state prosecutor Nicola Gratteri said ‘Ndrangheta was ‘nervous’.
‘If the mafia bosses can trip him up, they won’t hesitate,’ he said.
The Vatican brushed off the warning, insisting there was ‘no reason for concern’.
Yesterday they also moved to ease renewed concerns about the pope’s health, following his decision to suspend all midweek audiences to cancel his popular morning Mass until September, and all general mid-week audiences in July.
Fear: The discovery of the bodies of three-year-old Nicola Campolongo and his grandfather in a burnt-out Fiat Punto (pictured) sent shockwaves through Italy
Reverend Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office, told CNN: ‘There is no sickness whatsoever… If there was, we would be open about that and asking people to pray for him.’
The town of Cassano allo Ionio, nestled at the bottom of a steep mountain, was home to Nicola ‘Coco’ Campolongo, a three-year-old shot dead in January along with his grandfather.
The murders were apparent mafia assassinations over money.
The discovery of their bodies in a burnt-out Fiat Punto sent shockwaves through Italy, as did the murder just two months later of another three-year-old in the nearby Puglia region.
During his visit to Castrovillari prison, the 77-year-old pope will meet Coco’s father, who was serving time in prison alongside the toddler’s mother for drug crimes when their son was killed.
He may also meet the man who murdered priest Lazzaro Longobardi, who was beaten to death with an iron bar the same month after a failed extortion attempt.
Poor: Unemployment among the under-25s in Calabria (pictured) stands at 56.1 per cent – the highest in Italy. Local mobsters thrive by offering idle youngsters well-paid work, luring them into their networks
The ‘Ndrangheta plays a leading role in the global cocaine trade and its bastion, the Calabria region, is a major transit point for drug shipments from Latin America to the rest of Europe.
It has benefitted in the past from historic ties to the Church, with dons claiming to be God-fearing Catholics and priests turning a blind eye to crimes.
But over the past 20 years numerous priests have taken part in the fight against the clans – sometimes paying for their bravery with their lives.
Francis is likely to call on anti-mafia campaigners to continue their struggle, praising the work of organisations like Progetto Sud in Lamezia, which has transformed a gambling arcade and drug-trafficking base into a community for handicapped people.
He may also hail the courage of those who break ranks with the mob despite the clans’ stringent code of loyalty, which punishes rebellion by death.
The ‘Ndrangheta has been successful in combining elements of archaic tradition with modernity and has proved particularly difficult to infiltrate because of its reliance on a tightly knit network of families.
But a small but growing number of wives and daughters in particular are speaking out against their mobster fathers, brothers or sons.