SYDNEY — The legal case against Cardinal George Pell of Australia has taken an unexpected turn, after the death of Damian Dignan, who accused Cardinal Pell of committing acts of sexual abuse.
Dignan died of leukemia last week in the Australian town of Ballarat; his death will likely impact a committal hearing scheduled for March 5 addressing the sexual-abuse charges leveled against Pell.
In March 2016, Dignan and two former classmates from St. Alipius School in Ballarat together accused Cardinal Pell of inappropriate sexual behavior when they were minors. The cardinal had previously been accused of acts of child sexual abuse dating as far back as 1961.
Without the sworn testimony of Dignan in court, it is possible that prosecutors could drop the case altogether. However, Victorian Police did not confirm or deny the plausibility of this happening, especially because the prosecution could still use sworn statements or evidence given under oath made before Dignan’s death.
In addition, up to 50 witnesses are still expected to testify during the upcoming committal hearing.
Former Victorian magistrate Nicholas Papas did note that convicting Cardinal Pell without Dignan is a “more difficult task,” according to the U.K. Daily Mail.
Dignan’s lawyer Ingrid Irwin said that it was “ridiculous” that Dignan died “without any justice,” according to the Herald Sun.
Cardinal Pell, who was ordained a priest in Ballarat in 1966, has pled not guilty to the multiple counts of sexual abuse. He has been on a leave of absence from his duties since last summer, which was granted by Pope Francis.
“I am innocent of these charges; they are false,” Cardinal Pell told journalists on June 29, saying “the whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Cardinal Pell has testified multiple times before Australia’s Royal Commission, denying abuse charges, and is known to have spoken out against sexual abuse in the past.
“It is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors,” stated Holy See spokesman Greg Burke last summer.
However, Burke also underscored the importance of respecting the proceedings of the Australian justice system, which will ultimately “decide the merits of the questions raised.”
Cardinal Pell: Man who accused cleric of abuse dies
A man who publicly accused Cardinal George Pell of sexual abuse has died.
Damian Dignan, from the Australian city of Ballarat, died on Saturday following a long illness.
Cardinal Pell is on a leave of absence as Vatican treasurer to fight police charges in his native Australia. He has strongly and consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Local media reported that Mr Dignan’s death could affect court proceedings against the cardinal.
Mr Dignan’s former partner, Sharon Rixon, confirmed his death on Facebook, describing him as her “best friend and the father of my children”.
“It’s hard to say goodbye, but [you’re] pain free now and that’s the best thing we could hope for,” Ms Rixon wrote.
Mr Dignan aired allegations against Cardinal Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, in a television interview in March 2016.
Last June, police charged Cardinal Pell with historical offences from “multiple complainants”. He is due to return to a Melbourne court in March.
Cardinal Pell’s lawyer has previously said he will plead not guilty to all charges. Details of the allegations have not been released.
A former Melbourne magistrate, Nicholas Papas, told The Australian newspaper that Mr Dignan’s death could have ramifications on the court case.
“Normally it requires that the person who has given evidence to be there, and so normally it would be the case that without them there, the prosecution can’t proceed… but you can’t be absolutely sure,” he was quoted as saying.