Pell starts court battle amid media glare

 

Cardinal George Pell's first court appearance lasted only minutes under the intense glare of the world's media, signalling the start of a lengthy legal fight by the highest-ranking Catholic official to be charged with sexual abuse.

The third most senior Vatican official did not have to be at the Melbourne Magistrates Court for the brief administrative hearing, nor again profess his innocence, but chose to do both.

High-profile barrister Robert Richter QC noted Pell did not have to enter a plea at this early stage but said he will plead not guilty to multiple historical sexual offence charges involving multiple complainants.

"For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, might I indicate that Cardinal Pell will plead not guilty to all the charges and will maintain his presumed innocence that he has," Mr Richter told a packed courtroom.

Pell entered the court as he left it a short time later: shepherded by a ring of police officers, their arms linked, in an attempt to keep a 100-strong media contingent at bay as he walked the short distance to and from Mr Richter's office.

Several photographers were knocked over as they climbed the steps to the court building.

The media crush was even more intense as the 76-year-old departed, with police officers shouting at journalists and cameramen to move out of the way.

Pell, wearing black clerical attire, did not speak during the hearing and made no comment outside the court, even when heckled by protesters.

The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop and Ballarat priest did nod his head to acknowledge four supporters who said "God bless you" as he passed them.

The filing hearing was over in about six-and-a-half minutes, setting October 6 as the date for the committal mention that marks the next stage of the preliminary court process.

Magistrate Duncan Reynolds took the unusual step of explaining the filing hearing process, citing the interest in the matter.

It is only if the accused is committed for trial that he will be called upon to enter a formal plea, Mr Reynolds said.

Australia's most senior Catholic has taken leave from his position as Vatican treasurer to fight the charges.

Because he was charged on summons, Pell could have asked to be excused from appearing in person at the filing hearing.

But Pell and his three-member legal team arrived at court an hour before his matter was called at 10am.

He sat silently in the front row, the seats immediately to his left and right empty.

Every other seat was occupied by about 50 journalists, court artists and interested members of the public, including some supporters and abuse survivors.

The high level of interest prompted court staff to arrange footage of proceedings to be streamed into a neighbouring courtroom.

Abuse survivor Phil Nagle said the huge turnout was to be expected on what was a very symbolic day.

"The cardinal's here just as another man today, and obviously the third most powerful man in the Catholic Church," he told AAP.

"I think everyone wants to see the cardinal get a fair and just trial, that's what we really want to see. We want to see him have his day in court."

The prosecution has until September 8 to provide their brief of evidence to Pell and his legal team, although prosecutor Andrew Tinney SC indicated it could be delivered late next week.

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