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Australia tries Vatican official on sex abuse charges

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on as he makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office in Vatican city after being charged with historical sex offences in a case that has rocked the church, June 29, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

An Australian court has begun the trial of the most senior Vatican official that has ever been charged in Catholic Church sex abuse scandals.

Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, Cardinal George Pell, made his first court appearance on Wednesday after being charged last month with sexual abuse of multiple individuals years earlier in his Australian home state of Victoria.

While the details of the charges against the 76-year-old cleric — who has maintained his innocence — are yet to be revealed to the public, police have described them as historical sexual assault offenses, which means the alleged crimes happened years ago.

The development came after Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed earlier this year that seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of having sexually abused children across Australia over the past several decades.

Cardinal George Pell (C) arrives under heavy police protection for a filing hearing at the Melbourne Magistrates Court after being charged with sexual abuse offences, in Melbourne, July 26, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Pell said nothing during his court appearance on Wednesday, and although he has still not entered a plea, his lawyer Robert Richter said at the brief hearing that the cardinal intended to formally plead not guilty at a future court date.

“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,” Richter told the court.

Though many Catholic clerics have faced sex abuse allegations in recent years, Pell is by far the highest-ranking church official ever charged, and his case has rocked the Vatican.

Protesters hold placards before Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell (not pictured) as he arrives for a hearing at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Melbourne, July 26, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Pope Francis has famously pledged a “zero tolerance” policy for sex abuse in the Catholic Church. The pontiff has said he would not comment on Pell’s case until it is over.

Advocates for abuse victims had long criticized the Pope’s decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place since, at the time of his promotion in 2014, the cardinal was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.

Pell conceded in testimony to the commission last year that he had made mistakes by often believing priests over alleged abuse victims, and vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued such victims in his hometown of Ballarat.

Over the past year, however, the allegations against Pell moved beyond his conduct in handling cases of child abuse by priests to accusations that he himself had committed abuse.

Last year, Australian investigators flew to the Vatican to interview Pell and formally charged him last month.

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