Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, was charged last month with "historical sexual offences."

The charges against George Pell bring the Church's global abuse scandal to the heart of the Vatican.
The charges against George Pell bring the Church's global abuse scandal to the heart of the Vatican.

Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, denied all charges of historical sexual abuse at his first appearance in an Australian court over the allegations on Wednesday.

The 76 year old, the number-three figure in the Vatican, returned from Rome earlier this month to face the charges in 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.

TRT World's Francis Collings reports.

Looking sombre and frail, he 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," Richter told the court according to national broadcaster ABC.

Pell was not required to attend the hearing, but opted to appear, having 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, claiming he had been the victim of a campaign of "relentless character assassination."

He has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would 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.

The allegations against Pell coincide with the final stages of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome. In one hearing, he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.

Source: AFP