MELBOURNE — The alleged victims of Cardinal George Pell, who has been accused of numerous historical sexual offenses, are to be questioned in court for the first time this week.
A tired-looking Pell arrived at Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday accompanied by several police officers who had to help him through an international media scrum as he walked into the court house.
He stood down from his post as Vatican treasurer in June last year to fight the case in his home country of Australia after being charged by Victoria police.
He is required to attend Melbourne Magistrates Court each day of the four-week long committal hearing.
Cardinal Pell strongly denies all the allegations against him, and his lawyer has already informed the court he will officially be pleading not guilty.
The trial is the first time such a senior figure in the Holy See has faced criminal charges. The charges against Pell came after a special police task-force was created in 2013 to investigate complaints of abuse by Catholic clergy and other religious orders and institutions.
Pell’s first appearance in Melbourne last July played host to an international media contingent of more than 100 reporters, court artists, television crews and photographers who’d gathered at the steps of the court.
The first two weeks of this month’s committal are expected to hear solely from the accusers in a closed court. The remaining two weeks will be dedicated to the cross-examination of at least 40 other witnesses.
Some law experts and advocates say they are concerned the public won’t get full transparency when evidence is given in the closed court. They also fear the experience will likely be “distressing” for the complainants as their testimony is tested by the 76-year-old’s defense team.
The accusers will give evidence by videolink from a remote location. They’ll be cross-examined by Pell’s criminal defense barrister, Robert Richter, who is well known in Australia for his lengthy and forensic questioning of witnesses.
On Monday Magistrate Belinda Wallington granted permission for accusers to have access to support including from a friend or family member, or a dog while giving evidence.
A “support dog” known as Coop is part of a new initiative in Melbourne to help vulnerable or traumatized witnesses give evidence in court, Prosecutor Mark Gibson said.
Richter said he would apply for assistance for Pell, who had a support person at previous hearings.
Professor Jeremy Gans, who teaches on all aspects of the criminal justice system at Melbourne University, told CNN there are services in place to help complainants try to prepare to be cross examined, but it’s not an easy process.
“The experience is likely to be very distressing,” he said. “But the whole process of bringing a complaint is distressing. This is just one part of that.”
In a rare interview, Richter said he believes Pell is innocent and intends to show that “what was alleged was impossible.”
He said he doesn’t try to come to terms with the possible suffering of those he questions in court.
“I put it out of my mind, you say to yourself: ‘I’m a professional,'” Richter told The Age newspaper. “People are hurt no matter what happens. If someone is wrongly convicted, or given a disproportionately heavy sentence, all you have done is multiply the number of victims.”
Once the committal is over, the magistrate will decide if there is enough evidence to go to trial in a higher court.
“A committal hearing has a similar purpose to a Grand Jury hearing in the US,” Gans explained. “It’s a way to test whether there is enough evidence to go ahead with a serious trial. The major difference is that a committal hearing is heard by a single magistrate (a legally qualified lower-ranked judge), rather than a jury.”
Ingrid Irwin, an Australian lawyer who works in the area of historic sexual abuse in Pell’s hometown of Ballarat, Victoria, says it’s a “great flaw” that in the Australian legal system, the complainants don’t have their own lawyers.
“Alleged victims do not have a lawyer during the criminal case so they are not a party to proceeding yet the case is all about them,” she told CNN. “It seems unjust that the matter is about them, and they are not represented.”
At several short court hearings in the past four months, Pell’s team has lodged court orders for documents and materials to help their case.
Pell’s legal team successfully won its bid to raise undisclosed materials from a victims advocacy group, the Victorian police force, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and lawyers involved in the area of historic sexual abuse, as well as from the complainants themselves.
Wallington ruled in February however, that the medical records of the complainants could not be supplied as requested, for privacy reasons.
Her decision came after the prosecution team accused Pell’s lawyers of going on a “fishing expedition” for personal medical information about the accusers, particularly in the area of mental health.
In January, a complainant in the case passed away and the prosecution requested the charge relating to him should be dropped.
The defense team argued to keep the charge in place, saying they would show the accuser prompted a “domino effect” of other alleged victims later coming forward because he was interviewed in the media.
However, at a hearing Friday, the prosecution announced the charge had been dropped.
In an exclusive report in January, CNN revealed that Pell was staying in a Sydney seminary with 40 trainee priests while he contests the case.
A spokesman said at the time that the cardinal had no official role at the seminary, where life for the trainees includes a strict daily regimen of prayer and teaching.
Pell had also previously served as archbishop of Melbourne and archbishop of Sydney before moving to Rome in 2014. He was soon appointed to the senior position of prefect of the secretariat for the economy, and became a trusted figure close to Pope Francis.
At a news conference at the Vatican in June last year when he was charged, Pell said he had been the victim of “relentless character assassination.”
“I’m innocent of these charges, they are false,” Pell said. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
In December, the Catholic Church in Australia came under pressure from advocates after the country’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its final report.
The Catholic Church was the sole target of about 20 recommendations, outlining what would amount to be a radical shakeup of centuries of tradition and orthodoxy. It included the recommendation that celibacy — compulsory for Catholic priests — should be voluntary.