Cardinal Pell returns to court to fight sexual offence charges

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MELBOURNE, Australia-Hearings began Monday to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial of Cardinal George Pell, one of the Vatican's most senior officials, who has been charged with historical sexual offenses.

Cardinal George Pell appeared before the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Monday for the start of a month-long hearing to test whether there is enough evidence to try him.

Much of it will be closed to the public and media.

Cardinal George Pell's lawyers have been challenged by a judge after they questioned the need for complainants to access a support dog while giving evidence.

Pell will not have to enter a formal plea unless committed to stand trial, but his barrister Robert Richter QC told the Vatican treasurer's first court appearance last July that Pell will plead not guilty to all charges.

Apart from the first 25 minutes, most of Monday's hearing was closed to the public while the first accuser gave evidence.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington granted a prosecution application for witnesses to have a support person present as they give evidence via a video link from a remote facility and would also allow a support dog called Coop to accompany them.

Clad in a light-colored coat, Pell arrived by auto Monday morning and was flanked by police as he walked through a large group of media and into the court security screening area.

Pell was charged a year ago with multiple prior sexual offenses.

Prosecutors on Friday withdrew one of the charges, relating to a complainant who died after the criminal proceedings began in 2017.

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"We say that was not followed because there was a presumption of guilt", Mr Richter said.

Pics: Court artist sketch by Jeff Hayes of Cardinal George Pell appearing in Melbourne Magistrates Court, Melbourne, Australia, Monday, March 5, 2018.

Richter also said it would only be fair to also allow his client to have a support person with him due to his "age and medical condition", which Wallington said she would allow.

"These documents are certainly relevant to the alleged offences", Richter said.

In response to the prosecution's request to use the dog, Mr Richter asked: 'I always thought dogs were there for children and very old people, but if they want a dog ...' The pope has said he will not comment on the case until it is over. For Pell, the charges are a threat to his freedom, his reputation and his career.

He told Wallington, the magistrate, that he understood the prosecution "has an objection to that support person being a priest, although I can't understand that".

But Gibson replied: "That's not quite right".

The inquiry issued its final report in December.

After years of alleged coverups and silence from the church over its pedophilia scandal, abuse survivors and their advocates have hailed the prosecution of Pell as a monumental shift in the way society is responding to the crisis. The Cardinal was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996-2001, then Archbishop of Sydney until his curial appointment by Pope Francis in 2014. And he did not force the cardinal to resign.