The third-highest ranking official in the Vatican and the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to ever be charged with sex offences is due to appear in court on Wednesday morning in Melbourne.
Cardinal George Pell plans to appear in person at Melbourne magistrates court, in an appearance that will be over within a matter of minutes but will be closely watched in Australia and around the world.
The 76-year-old has returned from Rome vowing to clear his name over multiple historical sexual offence charges involving multiple complainants.
In a statement released after the charges were announced, a spokesperson for Pell said he had “again strenuously denied all allegations” and would return to Australia “as soon as possible, to clear his name”.
“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously,” it said.
Pope Francis has granted Pell a leave of absence from his position attempting to reform the church’s finances to fight the charges and the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Greg Burke, released a statement expressing “regret” over the news but “respect” for the Australian legal system.
Pope Francis has declared a “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse in the church, saying in a letter to all Catholic bishops, released in January, that: “I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst.”
It is an administrative hearing to set the next dates in the court process and may last less than five minutes but the entire trial is expected to be lengthy.
As Pell was charged on summons, he could have asked to be excused from appearing in person and have his lawyer represent him. But he has decided to make the trip to Melbourne from Sydney, where he will be based during the legal process.
No special arrangements have been made for Pell’s appearance despite the case’s high profile.
The court will operate on a “business as usual” basis, with Pell expected to line up and clear security screening as he enters court.
Victoria police say they have been liaising with the court about appropriate arrangements for the day but will not comment further.
Such is the level of international interest in the case that many journalists, abuse survivors and members of the public are likely to miss out on being in the small courtroom allocated for filing hearings.
Victims’ advocate Leonie Sheedy is worried the intense media coverage of Pell’s case may trigger traumatic memories for abuse survivors.
The Care Leavers Australasia Network chief executive said that, because the case is exceptional in terms of public and international interest, it has the potential to cause far more distress than previously reported court cases.
“We urge all care leavers to take care of themselves this week and turn off news reports or media coverage of the case if they find it too upsetting,” Sheedy said on Tuesday.
The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop and Ballarat priest’s matter is expected to come before a magistrate at 10am.