Decision day has arrived for George Pell, as magistrate weighs options

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 The Sydney Morning Herald

30 April 2018 — 3:58pm

His has been a path no other Australian Catholic has taken, all the way to the powerful inner workings of the Vatican, until he became the church’s most senior leader in modern times to be charged with sexual assault offences.

On Tuesday George Pell will learn if he is to forge even more new ground, and be committed to stand trial in front of a jury on allegations of sexual assault dating back more than 20 years.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne Magistrates Court.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne Magistrates Court.

Photo: Justin McManus

In a ruling that will be heard throughout the religious world, magistrate Belinda Wallington will announce whether Cardinal Pell will stand trial on some or all of the charges, or whether they are to be struck out. If committed to trial it will most likely be in the County Court before a judge and 12 jurors.

Three hours have been set aside in Melbourne Magistrates Court for Ms Wallington to deliver her ruling on a number of charges. The hearing will be held in the building’s biggest court room, and Cardinal Pell must attend.

The 76-year-old faces multiple charges of sexual offences involving multiple accusers. Details of the charges have not been revealed.

Cardinal Pell denied the allegations since they were laid in the middle of last year, when he said he was ready to return to Australia and leave his job of managing the finances of the Vatican and the Holy See of Rome, in a bid to clear his name. He will formally enter a plea of not guilty if committed to trial on some or all of the charges.

Most of the charges Cardinal Pell face relate to two accusers, one alleging sexual offending in a cinema in the 1970s in Ballarat, where Cardinal Pell was then working as a priest. Another accuser says he was sexually assaulted at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s, at which stage the accused was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

Robert Richter QC with his client, Cardinal Pell.

Robert Richter QC with his client, Cardinal Pell.

Photo: AAP

Other charges relate to alleged offending at a swimming pool in Ballarat. Some charges have already been dropped by prosecutors.

Ms Wallington, an experienced judicial officer who is Victoria’s supervising magistrate for sexual offences, sat through a four-week committal featuring more than 30 witnesses, including complainants.

The court was closed to the public and media while the accusers gave evidence, as is standard practice in Victoria in sexual assault cases. Their evidence remains confidential.

On top of weighing up the strength of the evidence she heard, Ms Wallington listened to the oral submissions from Cardinal Pell’s legal team and prosecutors, and read through dozens of pages of written supporting submissions.

After the last of the witnesses, Robert Richter, QC, the head of the cardinal’s defence team, told the magistrate there was no way a jury could convict  because of the improbability of the allegations and because the complainants who made them had no credibility and could not be believed.

And if Ms Wallington dismissed the more serious allegations, Mr Richter told the magistrate, there was little justification for public money, time and effort being used in the cardinal standing trial on the other charges.

But lead prosecutor Mark Gibson, SC, submitted that while there were conflicts in some of the evidence, the differences were questions for a jury, and that the accusers had never wavered in their allegations against Cardinal Pell.

There have been crowds of police, press and onlookers outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

There have been crowds of police, press and onlookers outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

Photo: Jason South

If Ms Wallington decides there is insufficient evidence to commit Cardinal Pell to trial, the Director of Public Prosecutions has the discretionary power to review the magistrate’s decision and “directly present” an accused person to trial. However it is not common for this power to be used.

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