Cardinal George Pell, left, leaving Melbourne Magistrates' Court under police guard on Wednesday © Getty

The most senior Catholic priest ever to be charged with sex offences appeared in an Australian court on Wednesday in a case that has dealt a blow to the Church’s efforts to put decades of sexual abuse scandals behind it. 

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican finance chief, was flanked by about a dozen police officers as he was led through onlookers and a media scrum to appear at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. He did not reply to reporters’ questions and did not speak during the brief hearing. 

Cardinal Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter, told the court the 76-year-old would plead not guilty to all charges, which police said last month related to claims of “historical sexual offences” lodged by more than one person. 

The filing hearing, an administrative procedure, lasted little more than five minutes. Prosecutors have until September 8 to prepare their brief of evidence related to the charges. 

Magistrate Duncan Reynolds set a committal hearing for October 6. He has not released details of the court file or charge sheets to the media. 

Cardinal Pell is one of Pope Francis’s most trusted advisers and as prefect of the secretariat for the economy is the Vatican’s third-highest official.

Appointed to clean up the Roman Catholic Church’s finances, he has taken a leave of absence to fight the charges. The case has undermined Pope Francis’s efforts to draw a line under sexual abuse scandals that have dogged the Church for decades. 

Some of Cardinal Pell’s supporters, as well as campaigners against sexual abuse, attended the court appearance.

Julie Cameron, of Melbourne, stood outside the court holding a painting of Mary cradling an infant Jesus — an image she said was symbolic of the Church’s duty to protect children.

“This is where the actual Catholic Church has to go through renewal,” she said. “It has to acknowledge the crimes that were committed on children.” 

Cardinal Pell has repeatedly insisted on his innocence, describing the allegations as “false” and suggesting he has been the victim of “relentless character assassination”. 

Details of the charges have not been released. The police said last month that none of the allegations had been tested in court and Cardinal Pell had the right to due process. 

Cardinal Pell previously refused to attend a hearing of a long-running Australian government-commissioned inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse on health grounds. Instead, he appeared via video link from Rome. 

During that appearance Cardinal Pell denied he knew about abuse perpetrated by paedophile priests in the Australian town of Ballarat in the 1970s and 1980s. He has also denied claims that he tried to “silence” a victim of abuse.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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