Court hears police targeted Vatican's Pell before formal allegations made

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian police set up a task force targeting Cardinal George Pell before formal allegations of historical sexual offences were made, a court heard on Wednesday at a hearing to decide if the Vatican Treasurer will face trial on the charges.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Melbourne, Australia, March 27, 2018. AAP Image/Luis Ascui/via REUTERS

Pell’s lawyer said the police operation set up in 2013 failed to find any accuser until a year later, and when police did identify accusers, they failed to follow normal procedures in seeking corroboration for their allegations.

“Operation Tethering targeted Cardinal Pell, it was specific to Cardinal Pell?” Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter asked a police witness.

“That’s my understanding,” Victoria Police Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan told the court.

“It was commenced as an intel probe into what offences might have occurred,” Sheridan later said.

The investigation turned into an “operation” in April 2015, Richter said, based on allegations of “inappropriate behavior” by Pell, but no accusations of criminal conduct.

Police witness David Rae, one of the detectives investigating, confirmed this was the case.

“It’s an operation launched without any victims,” Richter told the court.

Key people who could have helped corroborate some of the evidence were not questioned until after police laid charges in June 2017, Richter said.

“That’s astonishing in a serious investigation of a very, very high profile suspect,” he told the court.

Rae, who had first contact with some of Pell’s accusers, told the court he did not take notes from his first phone calls with them. He agreed with Richter’s assertion that as a result there was no record that, in some instances, their allegations differed from their sworn written statements to police.

Some of Pell’s accusers had made much more serious allegations about earlier sexual offences against them by other people in the church, but police decided not to pursue those, Richter told the court.

Sheridan said he did not know why those allegations were not pursued by the police.

Richter also protested against Magistrate Belinda Wallington presiding over the hearing during argument over a legal point and called on her to disqualify herself.

“I apply that your honor is unqualified to hear this matter on the basis of a biased view of the evidence,” Richter told the magistrate. She refused his application after telling him to stop shouting at her.

The pre-trial hearing is due to end on Thursday.

Pell, 76, was summoned by Australian police in 2017 to face charges of historical sexual offences. Details of the charges associated with multiple accusers have not been made public.

Pell’s lawyers have said he will plead not guilty to all charges. He is not required to enter a plea unless the magistrate determines there is cause for a full trial.

Reporting by Sonali Paul; Editing by Michael Perry and Neil Fullick