Cardinal George Pell faces a wait of up to three weeks before hearing whether he will be sent to trial on historical sexual assault charges after his four-week committal hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court ended on Holy Thursday.
It is not known when Belinda Wallington, the Supervising Magistrate for Sexual Offences in the State of Victoria, will announce her decision. The court will sit again on 17 April to hear supplementary submissions from the defence, and the prosecution’s response.
The 76-year-old cardinal, who has repeatedly denied the allegations against him, will not be required to be present for this hearing. Details of the charges against Cardinal Pell have not yet been made public.
The hearing began on 5 March but was closed to the public and media almost immediately until 14 March to hear evidence from complainants, as is the practice in Victoria in sexual offence cases.
Victoria Police charged Cardinal Pell, who was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001 and then of Sydney from 2001 to 2014, on 29 June last year. Pope Francis granted him leave from his post as Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy to face the charges.
If Cardinal Pell is sent to trial, the case will be heard either in Victoria’s County Court or the Supreme Court – both of which are opposite the Magistrates’ Court in the heart of Melbourne’s legal precinct. The County Court is Victoria’s main trial court and can hear all indictable offences, except treason, murder and related offences; the Supreme Court, as the name suggests, is Victoria’s highest court. Only the High Court of Australia, in Canberra, can review its decisions.
In the final days of the committal hearing, Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, challenged Victoria Police, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist and – on the hearing’s penultimate day, 28 March – even asked Ms Wallington to disqualify herself from the case, accusing her of having a “biased view of the evidence”. Ms Wallington refused to grant the application.
Mr Richter told the court on 28 March that a police probe into Cardinal Pell established in 2013 “was an operation looking for a crime and a complainant” and that it aimed to “get Pell”.
But Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan, one of the detectives who travelled to Rome in 2016 to interview Cardinal Pell, described the investigation as an “intel probe” to see if there were unreported serious crimes. He said it was not uncommon for an investigation to take a long time while police pursued all avenues.
He told the court that Operation Tethering had begun in March 2013 to determine whether Cardinal Pell had committed unreported crimes.
He acknowledged that there was a search for potential complainants, and that no one came forward for more than a year after the investigation had begun.
On the final day of the hearing, Mr Richter criticised police for failing to take statements from nuns, choir members and other church officials that he said were favourable to the cardinal. He asked if the allegations against Cardinal Pell were treated like any other, or “was there a zeroing-in on him?” Detective Acting Sergeant Christopher Reed said he disagreed with Mr Richter’s statement “in its entirety”.
Mr Richter said police had not interviewed anyone who could corroborate evidence against Pell but Mr Reed said this was “not uncommon”. “I don’t think I have ever been involved in a child sexual assault matter where someone has seen the event,” he said.
On 27 March, ABC journalist Louise Milligan rejected Mr Richter’s assertion that she had tried to “poison the public’s mind” against Cardinal Pell in her work for the ABC and in her book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell. The book was withdrawn from sale in Victoria when Pell was charged.