Key abuse charge against Cardinal Pell withdrawn

Cardinal George Pell prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy speaks with CNA at the Vatican March 17 2016 Credit Alexey Gotovskiy CNA Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, speaks with CNA at the Vatican, March 17, 2016. | Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA.

On Friday, an Australian prosecutor withdrew a charge of abuse against Cardinal George Pell, who is currently undergoing a trial in Australia for accusations of past sexual abuse.

The charge was dropped by Prosecutor Mark Gibson March 2 after its key complainant died in January. It is only one of the charges brought against Pell, though the total number of charges and details are not yet public.

The next stage of the case begins March 5, with a four-week long preliminary hearing in Melbourne. The hearing, at which Pell will be present, will determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence to hold a jury trial for the charges of abuse brought against the cardinal.

The director of prosecutions for the Melbourne Magistrates Court had indicated in a hearing Feb. 14 that the charge of key witness Damian Dignan, who died in January, would likely be withdrawn.

Dignan, who died of leukemia in early January, along with a fellow classmate at St. Alipius school in Ballarat, accused Pell in 2016 of inappropriate sexual behavior when they were minors. The cardinal had previously been accused of acts of child sexual abuse dating as far back as 1961.

Defense attorney Ruth Shann argued against Dignan's credibility Feb. 14, saying that his complaints had a "domino effect" in terms of other people contacting the police, since he made the accusations nearly 40 years after the alleged abuse, and after reading about other cases in newspapers.

The start of Monday's preliminary hearing is the next step in the ongoing case against the cardinal, who in June 2016 was charged by Victoria state police of multiple instances of past sexual abuse.

After the charges were announced, Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and a member of the Pope's council of nine cardinal advisers, was granted leave from his post by Pope Francis in order to return to Australia for the trial.

The cardinal, who was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ballarat in 1966, has pleaded not guilty to the multiple counts of sexual abuse, and has maintained his innocence from the beginning.

"I am innocent of these charges, they are false," he told journalists June 29, 2017, after the charges were announced, adding that "the whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

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