An extraordinary scene will unfold in a hotel in Rome late Sunday night when one of Pope Francis’ most trusted advisors sits down for the first of up to four nights of live-streamed testimony about his role in an alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in Australia.
Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican finance minister and Australia’s senior Roman Catholic cleric, will be subjected to questioning from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. nightly for at least three and possibly four nights by judges linked via video from halfway around the world in Sydney, where it will be morning.
Pell, 74, has not been allowed to have a lawyer travel from his home country to be at his side, but he will not be alone: He is being joined during the hearings by a group of victims of priestly abuse who are traveling from Australia to be in the room with him.
In December, Pell was summoned to give evidence about abuse near Melbourne, Australia, but his lawyers argued his heart condition made it dangerous to fly, and suggested he speak by videolink from Rome.
Australia’s Royal Commission on child abuse wants to quiz the cardinal about his alleged role in moving a pedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, from one parish to another in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s — a common pattern in Catholic dioceses around the world at the time.
Returning from Mexico last Thursday, Pope Francis said that when a prelate is found transferring abusive priests, “the best thing he can do is to present his resignation.”
Pell was called to Rome by Francis in 2014 to oversee a complete overhaul of Vatican finances and is considered third in the Vatican hierarchy after the pontiff.
Beginning Sunday, Pell’s testimony, given at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome, will be broadcast to the royal commission’s hearing room in Sydney, as well as to a public room in Ballarat, Australia, a town about 70 miles northwest of Melbourne where abuse was allegedly committed.
A statement issued by the commission Tuesday said that Pell had picked the late hours during which he will give evidence.
Following news that Pell would not return home for the hearing, denying victims of abuse to join him in person, a fundraising drive was launched to raise $40,000 to send a group of victims to Rome.
Eight days later, over $140,000 had been raised, helped by Australian comedian Tim Minchin, who recorded a song called “Come Home (Cardinal Pell),” which accuses him of being a “coward” and has been viewed nearly a million times on Youtube.
As 15 people, including victims and their advisors, now prepare to travel to Rome, the commission has said it will also allow journalists into the room as Pell gives evidence.
A spokesman for the Hotel Quirinale said Tuesday that the commission had asked for a space able to hold 50 people.
As the hearing approached, Pell last week attacked media reports in Australia that he is being separately investigated by Australian police for committing sex abuse while he was a priest in Ballarat.
The report was based on police leaks, which were timed to “to do maximum damage to the cardinal and the Catholic Church and undermines the work of the royal commission,” Pell’s office said in a statement.
“The allegations are without foundation and utterly false,” it said, adding that Pell had called for an inquiry into the leaks.
Kington is a special correspondent