A hearing began last week in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put the Vatican's former treasurer, Australian Cardinal George Pell, on trial.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court, Melbourne, Australia, March 7, 2018.
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court, Melbourne, Australia, March 7, 2018. (Reuters)

The alleged victims of the most senior Vatican official charged in the Catholic Church's sex abuse crisis on Wednesday finished testifying to an Australian court.

A hearing began last week in the Melbourne Magistrates' Court to determine whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to put Australian Cardinal George Pell on trial.

Pope Francis' former finance minister was charged in June with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the 76-year-old cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as "historical" sexual assault offences – meaning the crimes are alleged to have occurred decades ago.

The courtroom had been closed to the public and media while alleged victims testified by a video link from an undisclosed location but was reopened Wednesday afternoon after the final alleged victim gave evidence.

The first witness to testify in open court was Bernard Barrett, a volunteer researcher for Broken Rights, an advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse.

The committal hearing is scheduled to take up to a month. Pell has said he will plead not guilty if Magistrate Belinda Wallington rules that prosecutors have a strong enough case to warrant a jury trial.

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

Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis' decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place. When Pell was promoted to the Vatican in 2014, he was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.

After years of alleged cover-ups and silence from the church over its paedophilia scandal, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a monumental shift in the way society is responding to the crisis.

So far, Francis has withheld judgment of Pell, saying he wants to wait for Australian justice to run its course. And he did not force the cardinal to resign. Pell said he intends to continue his work as a prefect of the church's economy ministry once the case is resolved.

Source: AP