MELBOURNE • Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, yesterday denied all charges of historical sexual abuse during his first appearance in an Australian court over the allegations.
The 76-year-old No. 3 figure in the Vatican returned from Rome earlier this month to face the charges in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court.
Details of the charges have not been made public, although police said they involved "multiple complainants". The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has always maintained his innocence.
Looking sombre and frail, the cardinal attended the hearing with his lawyer, top criminal barrister Robert Richter, who told the court his client was not guilty - even though a formal plea is not required at this stage.
"For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has," Mr Richter told the court, according to national broadcaster ABC.
Pell remained silent throughout, with magistrate Duncan Reynolds ruling that the brief of evidence needs to be handed to his legal team by Sept 8, with the next court date set for Oct 6.
The cleric made no comment as he was escorted by police through a crush of cameras, reporters and photographers into the court.
Australia's most powerful Catholic had previously vowed to defend himself and clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29.
"I am innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me," he said in Rome last month.
He claimed that he had been the victim of a campaign of "relentless character assassination".
He has been granted a leave of absence by Pope Francis, who has also made clear the cardinal will not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican's powerful economic ministry.
But the scandal has rocked the church.
He is the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to its long-running sexual abuse scandal.