Australia: Cardinal George Pell's sex abuse hearing begins

Vatican’s Pell faces crucial hearing on sex abuse claims

Australia: Cardinal George Pell's sex abuse hearing begins

Cardinal George Pell's barrister accused police of failing to follow proper procedures as a crucial hearing opened Monday to determine if the top Pope Francis adviser will stand trial on historical sexual offence charges.

The first two weeks of this month's committal are expected to hear exclusively from the accusers in a closed court.

The cardinal, aged 76, has what is expected to be a month-long hearing into historic sexual offence claims ahead of him.

Cardinal Pell was charged by detectives from Victoria Police's Sano taskforce in June a year ago and was granted leave by the Pope to return to Australia from the Vatican to fight the charges.

Cardinal George Pell's lawyers have been challenged by a judge after they questioned the need for complainants to access a support dog while giving evidence.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington replied: 'No, they're also there for vulnerable and traumatised people'.

"I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people", Richter told the court.

Australia's longest-running royal commission - which is the country's highest form of inquiry - had been investigating since 2012 how the Catholic Church and other institutions responded to sexual abuse of children in Australia over 90 years.

Mr Richter questioned whether police had taken into account the 21 witness statements the defence had provided, which were favourable to the cardinal.

"These documents are certainly relevant to the alleged offences".

"We say that wasn't followed because there was a presumption of guilt", he said.

"I know it doesn't suit the prosecution because they are exculpatory of the cardinal".

A frail-looking Pell has so far made two court appearances at preliminary hearings - in July and October previous year.

He progressed to archbishop of Australia's biggest city, Sydney, before moving to the Vatican as a prefect of the church's economy ministry in 2014.

His lawyer, Ruth Shann, said the first complainant approached police in 2015, 40 years after the alleged crimes, in response to media reports about Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He intends to return to that job once the criminal charges are resolved.

Pell will not have to enter a formal plea unless committed to stand trial, but his barrister Robert Richter QC told the Vatican treasurer's first court appearance last July that Pell will plead not guilty to all charges.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC), 50 witnesses are expected to give evidence during the hearing, which is scheduled to conclude by Good Friday.

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