Pope aide Pell arrives for sexual abuse decision

Melbourne (AFP) –


Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell arrived at a Melbourne court amid a heavy police presence Tuesday for a crucial decision on whether he will stand trial on historical sexual offence charges.

The 76-year-old, the most senior Catholic cleric to face criminal charges linked to the Church's long-running sexual abuse scandal, denies all the claims.

The exact details and nature of the allegations have not been made public, other than they involve "multiple complainants".

Until now, he has not had to formally enter a plea, although he instructed his lawyer from the outset to make clear he intended to plead not guilty.

Melbourne magistrate Belinda Wallington presided over a sometimes fiery committal hearing last month to determine whether there was enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

Her decision will be handed down Tuesday with the hearing due to start at 10:00 am (0000 GMT) and run for about 90 minutes.

If Pell -- a top advisor to Pope Francis -- is committed to stand trial, he will then face a directions hearing at a later time before a date is set for the trial.

The committal hearing over four weeks -- which was closed to the public and media for the first 10 days -- heard witness statements and cross-examinations by Pell's lawyers.

At one point, his barrister Robert Richter accused Wallington of being biased towards the prosecutors, and said the case should be thrown out as the complainants were unreliable and not credible.

He also suggested the cleric was being targeted to punish the Catholic Church.

A number of the charges were also dropped due to the death of one of the complainants and another being found medically unfit to give evidence.

The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has been on leave from the Vatican, returning to Australia to fight the allegations which relate to incidents that allegedly occurred long ago. He has regularly attended the court.

His case has coincided with an Australian national inquiry into child sexual abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission spoke to thousands of victims and heard claims of abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Pell appeared before it three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome over the Church's handling of complaints against paedophile priests.

Australia's Catholic leaders have spoken out in support of him, describing Pell as a "thoroughly decent man".