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Accusers face Cardinal George Pell in court over sex abuse charges

Australian Cardinal George Pell, centre, leaves Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday PICTURE: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP
Rod McGuirk

The most senior Catholic Church leader to be charged with sexual abuse came close to confronting his accusers on Monday in a video-linked Australian court hearing to test the strength of the prosecution's case.

Cardinal George Pell's alleged victims began testifying in the Melbourne Magistrates Court against Pope Francis' former finance minister in testimony that cannot be made public.

But the complainants, who cannot be identified, are avoiding the intense media scrutiny focused on the cramped courtroom and the company of their alleged abuser by giving their evidence via a video connection from an undisclosed location.

The number of alleged victims has not been made public, and their testimony is scheduled to continue for up to two weeks.

The 76-year-old Australian cardinal has denied any wrongdoing and has foreshadowed pleas of not guilty if the committal hearing that is likely to run as long as a month finds there is sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial.

Pell was charged last June with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria.

The details of the allegations have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as historical sexual assault offences.

Pell's lawyer Robert Richter did not object to the complainants appearing in court on a television screen Monday rather than in person.

But he did question why one would be allowed to appear with what prosecutor Mark Gibson described as a "support dog" while testifying.

"I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people," Richter told the court.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington replied, "No, they're also there for vulnerable and traumatised people."

When Pell last lived in Melbourne, he was archbishop of Australia's second-largest city.

He progressed to archbishop of Australia's biggest city, Sydney, before moving to the Vatican as a prefect of the church's economy ministry in 2014. He intends to return to that job once the criminal charges are resolved.

In 2016, it was Pell who was testifying by video to an official inquiry into sexual abuse.

He was in Rome and had health reasons for not making a long flight to testify in person to Australia's longest-running royal commission, the country's highest form of inquiry.

It had been investigating since 2012 how the Catholic Church and other institutions responded to sexual abuse of children in Australia over 90 years.

The inquiry issued its final report in December. Pell was questioned about his knowledge of and response to allegations of child abuse when he was a priest and bishop, but no allegation was made that he was a perpetrator.

Pell's lawyers told the court last month that the current criminal charges stemmed from publicity surrounding the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The lawyers said the first complainant approached police in 2015, 40 years after the alleged crimes, in response to media reports about that inquiry.

Pell was silent as he entered and left the court to a crush of media cameras and police, as well as throughout the initial 25 minutes of the hearing that was open to the public.

The case places both the cardinal and the pope in potentially perilous territory.

For Pell, the charges are a threat to his freedom, his reputation and his career.

For Pope Francis, they are a threat to his credibility, given that he famously promised a "zero tolerance" policy for sex abuse in the church.

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