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Cardinal George Pell's Journey From Ballarat Boy To The Vatican, And Now To Melbourne Magistrate's Court

Australia's highest ranking Catholic maintains his innocence.

25/07/2017 3:17 PM AEST | Updated 25/07/2017 3:17 PM AEST
Daniel Munoz / Reuters

From rural Australia to the country's most senior Catholic who, until last month, sat at the Pope's right hand, Cardinal George Pell has lived most of his professional life under scrutiny and controversy.

But now, far removed from the protective halls of the Vatican city, the stalwart defender of the Catholic Church's assets is preparing to face potentially legacy-defining allegations: multiple charges of historical sexual offences levelled against him by multiple complainants.

Pell, 76, who last month stepped away from his role as the Vatican's finance chief, strenuously maintains his innocence.

POOL New / Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI gestures as he sits next to Australia's senior Catholic cleric Cardinal George Pell (L) at a ceremony to thank World Youth Day volunteers at The Domain in Sydney July 21, 2008.

His expected appearance at Melbourne Magistrate's court on Wednesday marks just one stage of preliminary hearings into the multiple charges of historical sexual offences.

The details of the charges have not yet been made public.

The former Archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne volunteered to be interviewed by Victorian police in Rome in October last year. It was later announced he would be charged and he said he would come back to fight allegations he has described as a "character assassination" and a smear campaign.

Pell has said little since returning to Sydney earlier this month where he was met by a protective police escort, and has reportedly retained the services of high profile criminal defence lawyer Robert Richter, QC, who has had among his clients Victorian underworld figure Mick Gatto.

AFP/Getty Images
Vatican finance chief, Australian Cardinal George Pell attends a mass for the ordination of new bishops on March 19, 2016 at St Peter's basilica in Vatican.

Pell is a conservative defender of the Church, its assets and its traditional doctrine. He first rose to national prominence in the early 1990s for his stance against homosexuality and for the establishment of the "Melbourne Response", the Church's response to child sexual abuse.

Touted as a world first, it has been criticised by some sex abuse survivors and legal experts for compelling victims to keep quiet and accept small compensation payments.

A heart condition prevented Pell from flying to Australia to give evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He testified via video link. That decision, and parts of Pell's responses into how he viewed historical allegations made against others, received heavy community criticism.

Remo Casilli / Reuters
Cardinal George Pell leaves his house in Rome, Italy, June 29, 2017.

Amid scarce public detail of the allegations against Pell and intense scrutiny, Ingrid Irwin, who is representing some of Pell's accusers, has predicted a drawn-out legal fight.

Some senior Victorian lawyers have called for a judge-only trial, fearing perceptions of Pell and the Church could influence jurors.

These are the circumstances in which one of rural Ballarat's favoured sons -- who from a parish priest rose to sit at the Pope's side -- returns to his home state.

Cardinal Pell's Career

  • 1941: Born in Ballarat, Victoria, to George, a Kalgoorlie goldminer and heavyweight boxer, and Margaret, a devout Irish Catholic;
  • 1959: Signs a professional contract with Richmond football club;
  • 1960: Enters Corpus Christi Seminary in Werribee, Victoria;
  • 1963: Heads to Rome for study;
  • From 1966: Becomes a priest for the diocese of Peter's Basilica in the Western Victorian city of Ballarat, and serves in various parishes and positions, including a decade as an academic at the institute of Catholic education and as Vicar for Education in the Ballarat diocese from 1978 - 1979;
  • 1987: Becomes Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne;
  • 1993: Walks with Gerald Ridsdale to court. Ridsdale was later convicted of several child sexual abuse charges;
  • 1996: Appointed Archbishop of Melbourne;
  • 2001: Appointed Archbishop of Sydney, making him the most senior Catholic in the country;
  • 2002: Appointed to the Congregation of the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments;
  • 2003: Appointed to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II;
  • 2014: Appointed to be the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat Of the Economy, making him responsible for the annual budget of the Holy See and the Vatican;
  • March 2016: Gives evidence from Rome to the Child Abuse Royal Commission. He faced criticism for telling the hearing it was a"disastrous coincidence" that five paedophile priests targeted children in Ballarat during the 1970s;
  • Oct 2016: Voluntarily interviewed by Victoria Police in Rome about historic sexual abuse allegations;
  • 2017: Victoria Police announce Pell is to face multiple charges of historical sexual offences.
Source: SMH and ABC
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