According to the prosecution, six criminal charges against Cardinal George Pell are set to be dropped.
Crown prosecutor Mark Gibson SC has foreshadowed that a number of criminal charges brought against Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, will be formally withdrawn because the complainant they relate to is “medically unfit to give evidence”.
It is expected that six charges will be dropped when the committal hearing resumes this week.
A committal hearing is currently underway in Melbourne Magistrate’s Court to decide whether there is enough evidence to commit Cardinal Pell for trial. Mr Pell was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault last year, which relate to alleged conduct against several boys during the 1970s.
Charges were laid after a lengthy investigation by Victoria Police into multiple complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct by Pell in Ballarat. In October 2016, three Victoria police detectives flew to Rome to interview Cardinal Pell, and charges were formally laid in July 2017.
A number of complainants alleged that Pell touched them inappropriately during the summer of 1978/1979, while swimming with them at the town’s pool.
Pell is also accused of committing child sex offences at a cinema, church, and during a waterskiing outing at a lake in rural Victoria. The allegations emerged during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The four-week committal hearing has already heard evidence from family members of the complainants. The sister of one man testified that her brother spoke of being sexually assaulted under the water at a public swimming pool.
Mr Pell is being represented by eminent Queen’s Counsel Robert Richter. The Cardinal vehemently denies any wrongdoing.
While declining to appear at two public hearings of the Royal Commission in 2015, citing health problems, Pell foreshadowed returning to Australia to face the allegations – which he has done.
The committal hearing is expected to last until Good Friday, after which magistrate Belinda Wallington will make her decision about whether there is enough evidence to commit Mr Pell for trial.
In the meantime, the Cardinal has the right to be presumed innocent until and unless he is proven to be guilty.
What is a committal hearing?
In New South Wales, serious criminal cases are normally finalised in the higher courts such as the District or Supreme courts.
However, cases will almost invariably commence in the Local Court and proceed until they reach an administrative process known as a “committal hearing”.
Committal hearings are where the prosecution is required to prove that a case is strong enough to progress towards a trial in a higher court.
Under section 64 of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 (NSW), a magistrate’s task at a committal hearing is to decide whether there is a reasonable possibility that a properly instructed jury would convict the defendant.
If there is such a chance, the magistrate will “commit” the defendant for trial. If there is no such prospect, the magistrate will discharge the defendant in respect of the charge.