Cardinal George Pell is set for a tense wait for a decision over whether an abuse case against him will proceed to full criminal trial in Australia when the committal hearing against him wraps up this week.
The Vatican treasurer is the most senior figure in the Holy See to ever face criminal charges, and the past three weeks of evidence has revealed details of multiple allegations of historical sexual abuse.
The 76-year-old Cardinal, who stood aside from his senior post in Rome when he was charged in June last year, will not hear a final decision from the magistrate on whether the case will proceed to trial for up to two weeks, possibly longer. He has strenuously denied all charges.
This week the remaining 50 witnesses will give testimony at Melbourne Magistrates Court where the case against Pell has been heard since early March.
When the hearing closes Thursday, submissions will be made by both Pell’s defense team and the prosecution for the magistrate to assess.
Protesters and supporters outside court
Pell has attended Melbourne Magistrates Court every day often accompanied by friend and adviser Katrina Lee, from the Archdiocese of Sydney.
For the first five days of the hearing, the court was closed to the public and the media as it heard video-link evidence from his accusers.
A handful of both protesters and supporters, some holding placards, have greeted Pell on the steps of the court each day. He strongly denies all the allegations against him.
Police and security guards have kept the Cardinal a safe distance from onlookers.
In Australia, a committal hearing operates in a similar way to a grand jury hearing in the US, except here the defense team can test the prosecution evidence.
When it concludes, the magistrate will then make a decision about whether the case should proceed to a full trial at a higher court.
Multiple allegations heard
The committal proceedings have made daily headlines in Pell’s native country as multiple allegations emerged during the case.
One allegation heard was that Pell allegedly abused an accuser during a visit to a lake in the 1970s. Pell was said to have been invited along with another priest by a large Catholic family he knew, to join them for water skiing and afternoon tea.
The Cardinal is also alleged to have committed abuse at a swimming pool where he was seen interacting with swimmers over several summers in the 1970s.
Another allegation accuses him of abusing a victim at a cinema in 1978 during a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 hit science fiction film Close Encounters of a Third Kind.
The first day the public and media were allowed back into the court, the father of a man who was allegedly abused by Pell spoke of his son’s fatal descent into drug abuse.
In a dramatic first open session, the court heard the alleged victim died 24 hours after leaving police custody four years ago. The witness, who could not be named, told the court via video link of his son’s tragic addiction to heroin which lead to his “accidental” death in 2014 just after being released in Sunshine, Victoria, for an unknown matter.
“I believe he was used to taking a lot more [heroin] and he thought he could do that but it was just too much for his body,” he said.
The court also heard that it would have been “impossible” for Pell to have committed abuse during his time as Archbishop of Melbourne, a post he held between 1996 and 2001, while wearing his heavy official robes.
Several witnesses told the court that Pell was generally shadowed by a priest whose duty it was to look after the Cardinal during his official duties.
The court also heard from several witnesses that it would have been noticed if any members of the choir went missing for any length of time after they left the Cathedral following Mass services.
Abuse advocate and author under fire
During the committal hearing, a leading abuse advocate came under fire by Pell’s defence team, as well as the work of an author who wrote a book on some of the allegations before charges were made.
Bernard Barrett, a retired academic and volunteer for victims lobby group Broken Rites, was accused making false allegations against Pell when an accuser contacted him via his mother.
Often raising his voice and banging his fist on the table, Robert Richter, Pell’s lead barrister, accused Barrett of trying to make a name for himself by making claims against Australia’s most senior Catholic.
Richter also hit out at a mother of an accuser who changed her police statement after reading a book about some of the allegations by ABC journalist and author Louise Milligan.
The mother, who works as a nurse, cried while giving evidence and said she wanted to add in a “memory” she recently recalled: that she had waited for long periods outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in her car for her son who sang in the choir during Mass services.
Richter accused the mother of adding in the “relevant” detail after a book by Milligan called “Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell,” was passed around between family members.
Milligan is a witness in the case and set to be cross-examined this week. The court heard from the mother of another alleged victim who later died of a heroin overdose that she’d asked Milligan not to include her interview in her book. The mother had feared it could taint legal proceedings.
However, Milligan went ahead and included the woman’s details in her book, which is still on sale in Australia, everywhere except in the state of Victoria where the case is being heard.
Pell set to return to seminary to await news
The Cardinal is expected to return to a seminary in New South Wales after the hearing ends on Thursday to await news of the decision about whether he will face a full trial later in the year.
In an exclusive report in January, CNN revealed Pell has been staying in the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney, with 40 trainee priests while he fights the case.
Pell previously held the eminent senior roles of Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney before moving across to Rome in 2014. He was soon appointed the senior role 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.”