Cardinal George Pell is to face trial in an Australian court on several charges of historical sexual assault, with the 76-year-old Prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy formally pleading not guilty to all charges.
But Magistrate Belinda Wallington dismissed a number of the most serious charges, ruling that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to convict Cardinal Pell, while other charges were withdrawn due to the death of one complainant and the finding that another was medically unfit to give evidence.
The Vatican issued a statement saying: “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence George Pell. Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place.”
Ms Wallington, the Supervising Magistrate for Sexual Offences in the State of Victoria, took more than an hour to deliver her decision on Tuesday (1 May) in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court, where Cardinal Pell's month-long committal hearing was held from 5 March.
When asked to enter a plea, Cardinal Pell said in a loud, clear voice: "Not guilty."
A directions hearing is to be held in the County Court of Victoria on Wednesday (2 May) at which the date of the trial may be set.
Cardinal Pell has handed in his passport and is unable to leave Australia as a condition of his bail.
The charges on which Cardinal Pell will go to trial charges involve multiple complainants and relate to alleged sexual offences in the 1970s at a swimming pool in Ballarat, the Cardinal's home town west of Melbourne where he was then working as a priest; and at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
The specific charges have not been made public.
Cardinal Pell, who was granted leave from his Vatican post by Pope Francis when charged last June, has strenuously denied all allegations against him. He returned to Australia the following month to begin his defence.
A statement from the Cardinal was issued through his lawyers after the decision:
"Cardinal George Pell has at all times fully cooperated with Victoria Police and always steadfastly maintained his innocence. He voluntarily returned to Australia to meet these accusations. He will defend the remaining charges.
"He would like to thank all those who have supported him from both here in Australia and overseas during this exacting time and is grateful for their continuing support and prayers."
Mr Robert Richter, QC, for the defence, indicated in court on Tuesday that an application would be made for separate trials, given differences in the allegations. A decision on holding one or more trials would be made by a County Court judge.
In striking out some of the charges, Ms Wallington said one complainant had demonstrated a "cavalier attitude" to giving evidence, while inconsistencies in the evidence of another complainant meant there was insufficient weight in the allegation for a conviction.
But she found that the evidence of other accusers was credible enough to be believed by a jury, that there was no evidence they had colluded in what they had told police and that media coverage had not contaminated their allegations.
Archbishop Denis Hart, Cardinal Pell's successor as Archbishop of Melbourne, would not comment on the magistrate's decision but expressed his confidence in the judicial system in Australia and said justice must now take its course.
Cardinal Pell, who turns 77 next month, was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996-2001, when he was appointed Archbishop of Sydney. Named a cardinal in 2003, he remained leader of Australia's oldest diocese in its biggest city until Pope Francis appointed him as head of the new secretariat in 2014.
PICTURE: Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Melbourne on Tuesday, May 1, 2018.(AAP Image/Daniel Pockett)