Cardinal Pell arrives for Australian sex abuse court hearing

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Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell arrived for his first appearance in an Australian court on historical sex abuse charges Wednesday, facing a huge media scrum ahead of the largely administrative hearing.

The 76-year-old, a top advisor to Pope Francis, returned from Rome earlier this month to face multiple charges in Melbourne relating to offences allegedly committed decades ago, when he was a senior cleric in Australia.

Details of the charges have not been made public although police said they involved "multiple complainants". The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has always maintained his innocence. 

Pell, looking sombre and frail, made no comment as he was escorted by a group of police through a crush of cameras, reporters and photographers outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court, which hears hundreds of cases a week for alleged crimes ranging from theft to murder.

Several photographers were knocked over in the melee.

He was not required to attend the hearing, which allows lawyers to discuss when the prosecution brief can be handed over and set out the next dates in what is expected to be a lengthy court process.

But Australia's most powerful Catholic opted to appear, having previously vowed to defend himself and clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29.

"I am innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me," he said in Rome last month.

Despite being unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, no special arrangements were in place at the court. He entered the building through the front door and was screened by security.

The pre-eminent cleric has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican's powerful economic ministry.

The charges against him coincide with the final stages of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome. In one hearing, he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.