News National Stone-faced and silent, Pell faces first court hearing amid a heaving media circus
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Stone-faced and silent, Pell faces first court hearing amid a heaving media circus

George Pell
George Pell was greeted by a huge media scrum and heavy police protection for Wednesday's hearing at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Photo: Getty
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It wasn’t the way Cardinal George Pell likes to start his morning.

On a normal weekday the 76-year-old is usually found working inside the grand confines of Saint John’s Tower on the western tip of Vatican City.

In the medieval building, the official seat of the office he holds as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, there are assistants to bring him coffee or run errands across the ancient Roman cobblestones.

The restored tower is a place he can work in peace.

On Wednesday, however, there was nothing peaceful about the scene that greeted Cardinal Pell at Melbourne Magistrates Court, where he arrived just before 9am for his first hearing on multiple charges of historic sexual abuse.

This reporter had been the first in line at the doors of the court in the darkness at 5am. But very soon the William Street building was under siege, with an unprecedented media army of over 150 local, national and international journalists and TV crews.

We all morphed into one huge, breathless, heaving and agitated pack.

In truth, we were hungry for breakfast as well as the story.

A scrum of media, police and protesters welcomed Cardinal Pell at court on Wednesday. His lawyer said he will plead not guilty to historical sexual offence charges. Photo: AAP

The huge media interest, of course, wasn’t surprising: Cardinal Pell is the most senior Catholic to ever face criminal charges – charges which he has strongly and consistently denied and which have come after a two-year investigation by the SANO Taskforce.

This wasn’t just a routine filing hearing. This was history in the making.

Everything is at stake here for Cardinal Pell. His future. His reputation. The possible ramifications are endless for the worldwide Catholic Church, already battered by an ongoing abuse scandal that continues to grow.

As Cardinal Pell entered the court nobody needed a ladder or a bunk-up to catch a glimpse of this Ballarat-boy-turned-Vatican-superpower ascend the steps, guided and guarded by an armful of cops and the roaring soundtrack of media argy bargy and a handful of protesters shouting “shame on you”.

His imposing frame meant the steel-grey hair stood out like a lonely skyscraper above the clouds of chaos.

He looked deathly white. Poker-faced. Noticeably more fragile than his confident, bold appearance at the Vatican press conference last month, when he declared he was “looking forward to my day in court”.

No doubt the long-haul flight, ongoing health issues and intense meetings he is likely to have endured over these serious matters with his legal team have taken their toll.

Head mostly bowed, ignoring the survivors’ shouts and supporters’ claps, he was whisked into a private room after facing the standard indignity of being told to stretch out his arms for a security-wand check.

Cardinal Pell later strolled into the small, packed Court 2 about 15 minutes early. The thick gold ring on his little finger, a badge of high clerical office, was the only lightness on his otherwise dark palette of black suit and shirt.

Apart from a few mumbled conversations with members of his legal team he sat in silence, staring dead ahead, before the magistrate Duncan Reynolds began the business hearing – eight minutes of mostly routine administration and date setting.

The wheels of routine were broken, though, by Cardinal Pell’s famously theatrical barrister, Robert Richter QC.

Rising to his feet grandly, he said with a flourish that “for the avoidance of doubt … Cardinal Pell would be pleading not guilty to all charges”.

George Pell protesters
Protesters make their presence felt outside court. Photo: Getty

After the date for a committal mention was set for October 6, Cardinal Pell chatted for a while with his team before walking out of the doors with a tight ring of officers surrounding him, as he headed towards his barrister’s office around the corner at 530 Lonsdale Street.

He was again soon swamped by the press pack and assembled protesters holding small placards in a slow-moving, frenzied clerical sardine sandwich.

“I will pray for you Cardinal Pell,” shouted a male supporter as he disappeared from view.

An extraordinary winter’s morning in Melbourne involving a local boy turned public figure who now faces the fight of his life under the spotlight of the world.

And this was just day one.

Lucie Morris-Marr is an investigative journalist and contributor to The New York Times, Daily Mail Australia and Byline. She has worked as a senior writer at the Herald Sun where she broke the world exclusive about the secret SANO Taskforce investigation into Cardinal George Pell. She will be covering Pell’s legal proceedings exclusively for CNN and The New Daily.