Australian Court Orders Cardinal Pell to Stand Trial on Sexual Abuse Charges

Following the court ruling, the Vatican announced he will remain on leave of absence from his position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy while legal proceedings continue.

Cardinal George Pell.
Cardinal George Pell. (photo: Matthew Rarey)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal George Pell will remain on a leave of absence from his Vatican position as he faces charges of “historic sexual offenses” in his home country of Australia, the Vatican has announced.

The full detail and nature of the charges has not been publicly revealed, and it’s unknown when the trial will begin. The decision to go to trial came after a month-long preliminary hearing in Melbourne.

Cardinal Pell is accused of misconduct dating back decades, during his first years as a priest until he became the Archbishop of Melbourne. He has been accused of groping two boys at a swimming pool in the city of Ballarat during the 1970s, as well as assaulting two members of a choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne during the 1990s. More precise details about the charges were not made public.

The majority of the charges against the cardinal were dismissed byMagistrate Belinda Wallington during the preliminary hearing. But she declined to dismiss the others, saying she would not dismiss charges “merely because there is a reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence,” Associated Press reported.

The cardinal pleaded not guilty to the charges of historical sexual offense and surrendered his passport. The charge of “historical sexual offense” indicates that the alleged crimes happened decades ago. Australian law prohibits details of the charges from being publicly disclosed.

Cardinal Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to be the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014. He has been on leave of absence from the position since 2017, when he returned to Australia to face the accusations against him. He served as Archbishop of Sydney from 2001-2014, and Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996-2001.

He was first accused of sexual misconduct in 2002, but no charges were filed at that time. In 2013, police in Australia began an investigation into him, before filing charges last year.

Cardinal Pell is reported to be the first cardinal to face a criminal trial for sexual misconduct. In 2013, Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned from his position as Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh following allegations of predatory sexual misconduct. The Vatican subsequently announced that Cardinal O’Brien would not exercise the rights and duties of a cardinal. He did not participate in the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis. The allegations against Cardinal O’Brien were not reported to involve minors, and he did not face criminal charges. He died March 19.  

Lawyers representing Cardinal Pell insist that the charges against him are “impossible” and that he is innocent. Pell himself has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, saying that he finds sexual abuse to be “abhorrent.”

"I'm looking forward, finally, to having my day in court,” said Pell in June 2017. “I’m innocent of these charges. They are false."

It is unclear whether Pell will resign from his position in the Vatican when the case goes to trial, or whether his resignation will be accepted.

“The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell,” the Vatican said in a May 1 press statement. “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.”

Register staff contributed to this report.