MELBOURNE, Australia — Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking official, must stand trial on at least three charges of sexual abuse, an Australian court ruled on Tuesday, promising to prolong a case that has already dragged on for months, and which many see as a moment of reckoning for a church racked by scandal.
Belinda Wallington, a Melbourne magistrate, found there was sufficient evidence for prosecutors to bring the cardinal’s case to trial, ending a two-month pretrial hearing, in which witnesses described abuse they said took place decades ago.
Cardinal Pell, 76, is the most senior Roman Catholic official to be charged with crimes of sexual abuse. As the Vatican’s de facto finance chief, he was granted leave by the pope to return to Australia to conduct his defense.
The cardinal has been accused of “historical sexual offenses,” meaning they took place decades ago, but the details of the criminal complaint, including the identities of his accusers, have not been made public. Such cases are subject to Australia’s strict contempt standards, and other legal restrictions, which prohibit journalists from reporting on details of criminal allegations.
Robert Richter, the cardinal’s lawyer, said last year there was “voluminous” evidence to prove that “what was alleged is impossible.”
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Cardinal Pell was accused in 2016 in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while he served as the leader of the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. Then, in 2017, allegations surfaced that he had himself been involved in abuse beginning early in his priesthood and continuing until he became archbishop of Melbourne. He has denied those accusations.