A judge has ordered Cardinal George Pell to stand trial on sexual assault charges, making him the most senior Catholic ever to be tried in connection with the church's sex scandals. Pell—Australia's most senior Catholic and, as Vatican treasurer, the church's No. 3 official worldwide—formally pleaded not guilty to the charges at a hearing in Melbourne Tuesday, the BBC reports. Around half of the historical charges, including the ones Pell's attorney described as the most "vile," were dismissed, but Pell will stand trial on charges relating to alleged sexual offenses in a pool in the town of Ballarat in the 1970s, and at Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral when he was the city's archbishop in the 1990s, Radio Australia reports.
More than 30 witnesses testified during a pretrial hearing that lasted for four weeks. Magistrate Belinda Wallington said some of the charges were dismissed because of inconsistencies and a lack of evidence; others were dismissed because one accuser died and another was found medically unfit to give evidence. Pell, 76, took a leave of absence from Rome last year to return to Australia and face the charges. His passport has now been confiscated by authorities. "Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place," the Vatican said in a statement.