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Cardinal George Pell appears before Australian court to face sexual abuse charges

Cardinal George Pell, the top financial adviser to Pope Francis, maintained his innocence in a sexual abuse case that has shaken the Vatican. His trial is set to start on October 6 in Melbourne.

Watch video 00:37

Top Vatican official denies Australia sex charges

Vatican Cardinal George Pell appeared briefly before a Melbourne court on Wednesday for the first hearing of an explosive sexual abuse case that has rocked the Holy See. 

Pell did not speak in court, but his lawyer said the Vatican's third-highest official would plead not guilty after returning to his native Australia earlier this month to face charges. 

"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," lawyer Robert Richter told the Melbourne Magistrates' Court.

The hearing was administrative and Pell was not required to enter a plea. The trial is scheduled to start on October 6. 

Sprawling sexual abuse case

Pell, 76, has been charged with sexually abusing multiple people years ago while in his Australian home state of Victoria.

Read more: Australia reveals over 4,000 alleged incidents of abuse by Catholic priests

Australian Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne (picture alliance/dpa/AAP/J. Castro)

Australian police shelter Cardinal George Pell as he enters the Melbourne Magistrates' Court

Details of the charges have not been released to the public, though police have said they involve "multiple complaints."

Authorities have described the charges as "historical" - meaning they happened years ago.

He is free ahead of his court hearing, during which he may formally apply for bail.

Pell, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis' top financial adviser, has repeatedly claimed his innocence and vowed to defend himself against the charges.

Speaking at the Vatican last month, Pell said: "The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

Pope Francis has granted Pell a leave of absence so the cardinal could return to Australia to fight the charges. The pope has said he would hold off making a judgement on the case until Australian justice has run its course.

The case is an embarrassment for the pope, who appointed Pell to his current position. It comes as the Vatican has sought to clean up the church's image after a series of sexual abuse scandals. 

Watch video 03:57

Pope’s adviser faces sexual abuse charges

For years, Pell has faced allegations of mishandling cases of clergy abuse while serving as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sidney. He had appeared before the Australian Royal Commission looking into child sex abuse three times – once in person and twice though a video-link from Rome. During one appearance he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with pedophile priests in Victoria in the 1970s.

Protest and support

Pell was escorted by police through a large crowd of media, protesters and supporters as he arrived at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court for his pretrial hearing.

One of the placards protestors were holding read "Nowhere to hide." Another, held by Julie Cameron of Melbourne, was a painting of Mary cradling infant Jesus, which she said was symbolic of the duty the church has to protect children.

Supporters, meanwhile, greeted Pell with applause, which they said was their way of showing support for a man they believe was prematurely judged before all the facts are known.

dv/cw (AP, AFP, dpa)

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