Lawyers make final remarks in Australian cardinal's sex case

FILE - In this March 5, 2018, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives for a hearing at an Australian court in Melbourne, Australia. A lawyer for the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis told the Australian court on Tuesday, April 17, 2018 that Pell could have been targeted with false accusations to punish him for the crimes of other clerics. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake, File)

MELBOURNE, Australia — A lawyer for the most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis told an Australian court on Tuesday that Cardinal George Pell could have been targeted with false accusations to punish him for the crimes of other clerics.

Defense and prosecution lawyers were making their final submissions in the Melbourne Magistrates Court in a hearing to determine whether the case against Australia's highest-ranking Catholic was strong enough to warrant a trial by jury.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington will make her ruling on May 1 on whether Pell will stand trial.

Pell, Pope Francis' former finance minister, was charged last June with sexually abusing multiple people in his Australian home state of Victoria. The details of the allegations against the 76-year-old have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as "historical" sexual assault offenses — meaning the crimes allegedly occurred decades ago.

Defense lawyer Robert Richter told Wallington that complainants might have testified in court last month against the former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney to punish him for failing to act against abuse within the church.

"We say that Cardinal Pell, representing the face of the Catholic Church, a prominent person, had been the obvious target of allegations that are not true but are designed to punish him, almost, for not having prevented sexual abuse for many years," Richter said.

But prosecutor Mark Gibson told the court there was no evidence to back Richter's theory that Pell had been targeted over the church's failings.

Richter called on Wallington to throw out the charges.

The most serious complaints "ought to be regarded as impossible and ought to be discharged without batting an eyelid," Richter told the magistrate.

Richter said lesser charges should also be dismissed because of problems with complainants' credibility.

But Wallington replied that questions of credibility and reliability were for a jury to decide, "except when you get to the point where credibility is effectively annihilated."

Richter offered a different legal test, telling the magistrate, "As close enough to annihilation that it would be a waste of public money, time and effort to put the man on trial."

Gibson said none of the accusers had backed away from allegations.

Defense lawyers' attack on the complainants' credibility amounted to nothing more than "a conflict in the evidence," which was up to a jury to decide, Gibson said.

"Nothing in what's been put by the defense amounts to any defect in the evidence. It does not fundamentally impact on the reliability of the complainants' evidence," Gibson said.

Pell attended court every day during four weeks of testimony last month, during which his alleged victims testified via a video connection to a courtroom closed to the public and media. He was excused from attending court on the final day.

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