Cardinal's Australian court hearing on sex charges ends

MELBOURNE, Australia — An Australian magistrate on Thursday closed a monthlong court hearing of evidence on whether the most senior Vatican cleric ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis will stand trial.

Belinda Wallington told the Melbourne Magistrates Court she would make her decision after lawyers make their final submissions on April 17 on whether prosecutors had a strong enough case against Australia's highest-ranking Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, to warrant a trial by jury.

Pope Francis' former finance minister was charged last 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 offenses — meaning the crimes allegedly occurred decades ago.

Pell has not been required to enter pleas but has said through his lawyers he will plead not guilty to all counts if ordered to stand trial.

The cardinal has attended every day of the four-week preliminary hearing. The first two weeks were closed to the public as his alleged victims testified via a video link to the court. Such closed courts are standard in Victoria when alleged sex abuse victims testify.

The final witness was the detective who led the investigation.

Defense lawyer Robert Richter said Pell was targeted for "special treatment" by detectives from Sano Taskforce, which investigated historical sex abuse.

"Do you say that the allegation against Cardinal Pell was treated like any other allegation?" Richter asked the detective. "Or was there a zeroing in on him to the extent that far more serious allegations against a nun were not pursued by the Sano Taskforce?"

The detective, Sgt. Christopher Reed, replied: "I disagree with that statement in its entirety."

Reed was one of three Victoria police who flew to Rome in October 2016 to interview Pell, who cooperated fully and answered every question, his lawyer said.

Reed agreed: "He spoke freely."

The police investigation of Pell began in 2013 before any complainant had come forward to police, whom Richter accused Wednesday of running "a get Pell operation."

Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan testified that it was an "intel probe" to see whether there were unreported serious crimes.

"I guess you could term it the way you did, but I wouldn't term it that way," Sheridan told Richter.

Another investigator, Detective Senior Constable David Rae, told the court on Wednesday that the cardinal would have been arrested for questioning if he had returned to Australia in 2015 to give evidence at a national inquiry into child abuse.

Pell's lawyers told the court in February the first complainant approached police in 2015, 40 years after the alleged crimes, in response to media reports about Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Australia's longest-running royal commission — which is the country's highest form of inquiry — 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 testified to the inquiry in a video link from the Vatican in 2016 about his time as a priest and bishop in Australia. He did not attend in person because of heart condition and other medical problems.

He was charged by summons in Rome and agreed to return to Australia to face the allegations.

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