One of the pope’s top advisers, Cardinal George Pell, makes his first court appearance in Australia this week on charges of historic sex crimes, a bitter reminder for his home town reeling from more than a dozen abuse cases.
Pell, the Vatican’s economy minister, last month became the most senior Catholic to be charged with sex crimes. He has vowed to fight the still-unspecified charges, calling them false and the result of a “relentlelss character assassination”. He declined to respond to interview requests for this story.
He is expected to appear before Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday.
Police have not released details of the charges, but the start of Pell’s court battle in Melbourne revisits a troubled past for Ballarat, the former gold town of 100,000 people 75 miles (120 km) to the west where Pell grew up and cut his teeth as a priest in the 1970s and 1980s.
Before a 2013 state government inquiry into institutional abuse, Ballarat was best known to Australians as the site of the Eureka Stockade, a bloody 1854 uprising by goldminers against colonial authorities.
But the government inquiry exposed shocking accounts of child abuse and allegations of a cover-up in the Ballarat diocese over many generations, sparking a more powerful federal Royal Commission that heard testimony from hundreds of people, including allegations against 17 priests in Ballarat alone.
At least five priests from the diocese have been jailed for abuse. Supporters of the victims have tied hundreds of colorful ribbons to the fence outside the city’s main Catholic church, St Patrick’s.
Pell, 76, testified at both inquiries, mostly about his knowledge of the handling of complaints against the church when he was a young priest in the 1970s and 1980s. He repeatedly denied direct knowledge of practices which, according to the testimony of others, involved moving suspect priests between parishes to avoid detection.