MELBOURNE • The Vatican's finance chief Cardinal George Pell yesterday became the highest-ranked Catholic to be sent for trial over historic sex offences, as he vowed to fight the charges.
The 76-year-old was impassive throughout the hearing in the Australian city of Melbourne that ordered him to face a jury on "multiple" charges, although half of the allegations against him - including some of the most serious - were thrown out.
"Not guilty," the top aide to Pope Francis said loudly and without hesitation when asked his plea, a stance he has taken since first being charged last year.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington said she was satisfied there was enough evidence to justify a trial on "multiple" charges. A hearing is due today to discuss a trial date.
Pell, who entered the court surrounded by a large police presence, was released on bail on condition he does not leave Australia. He has already handed in his passport.
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.
The exact details and nature of the claims remain confidential.
But several of the most serious allegations were dismissed due to inconsistencies in the evidence.
The 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.
The Catholic church globally has been plagued by allegations of sex abuse among priests.
The scandals have haunted the papacy of Pope Francis, who in February announced the Vatican was reviving its anti-paedophile panel.
Pell was one of the pope's most trusted aides, handpicked by him in 2014 to make the church's finances more transparent.