Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell faced his first appearance at a higher court Wednesday, one day after a Melbourne magistrate ordered him to stand trial on multiple charges of historical abuse.
Pell is the most senior figure in the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for alleged assault. He is on leave from the Vatican while he contests the claims.
On Tuesday he entered a formal plea of not guilty to all charges at the County Court of Victoria.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington dropped around half the charges on Tuesday but found enough evidence was presented during pre-trial hearings to take the case to trial.
The charges relate to claims of historical sexual abuse spanning three decades, and include events that allegedly took place at a swimming pool in rural Victoria in the 1970s and at St Patrick’s Cathedral during the 1990s, when Pell served as Archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell’s barrister Robert Richter told the court on Wednesday that he hoped proceedings would begin as soon as possible.
“That’s for various reasons … my client is 76 years old and, number two, everyone needs to get on with their lives,” Richter said.
Richter asked that Pell not be compelled to be at the next hearing, but Judge Susan Pullen denied his request. Pell, wearing a black suit, sat quietly during the short hearing.
He was granted bail until his next court hearing. Pell had already surrended his passport and he is not allowed to leave the country.
Some charges dropped
Tuesday’s decision to send Pell’s case to trial is a blow to an already embattled Catholic Church, which has been fighting allegations of abuse among its clergy for decades.
Thousands of cases brought to light around the world have led to investigations and convictions in countries including the United States, Canada, Ireland and Australia.
In a statement released Tuesday, Pell’s legal team said its client “steadfastly” maintained his innocence. “He will defend the remaining charges. He would like to thank all those who have supported him from both here in Australia and overseas during this exacting time,” the statement said.
The Vatican stood by Pell in a statement, saying it had “taken note” of the court’s decision. “Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place,” the statement said.
From rural Australia to the Vatican
Pell’s ascent was a source of pride for many Catholic Australians, as he quickly rose from a rural parish priest to the highest offices of the Vatican.
In 1996, 30 years after he was first ordained as a priest, Pell was made archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II. Less than a decade later, Pell was appointed as archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and then made a cardinal in 2003.
But his greatest honor came in 2014 when he was handpicked by Pope Francis to become one of only nine advisers on the Council of Cardinals to the head of the Catholic Church.
In December 2017, a Royal Commission in Australia made recommendations that the Vatican should move to change ancient canon laws in order to reduce future risk of sexual abuse.
The recommendations included making celibacy voluntary for priests and making mandatory reporting of abuse to police if an admission is made during confession.
CNN’s Delia Gallagher, Samantha Beech and Steve Almasy contributed to this article.