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Melbourne, Australia — The most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis arrived at an Australian court on Wednesday for his first court appearance, as he vows to clear his name in a scandal that has rattled Rome.

Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, was charged last month with sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria.

The details of the allegations against the 76-year-old cardinal have yet to be released to the public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offenses — meaning crimes that occurred years ago.

Pell was surrounded by media cameras when he arrived on the front steps of Melbourne Magistrates’ Court more than an hour before a scheduled hearing that will likely last minutes and deal largely with administrative matters, such as setting future court dates. Despite the routine nature of the hearing, it has drawn hordes of journalists, abuse survivors and spectators.

Pell walked through court security surrounded by police and was whisked past a crowd waiting to get into the courtroom.

Pell supporter Trevor Atkinson and several other members of his church burst into applause when Pell walked into the courthouse. To them, the clapping was their small way of showing support to a man they feel has been preemptively judged before all the facts are known.

“We’re coming here open-minded — we’d like to hear the facts,” Atkinson said. “It’s really a matter of giving him a fair go.”

Outside the courthouse, demonstrator Julie Cameron of Melbourne held up a painting of Mary cradling an infant Jesus. The image, she said, was symbolic of the duty the church has to protect children.

“This is where the actual Catholic Church has to go through renewal — it has to acknowledge the crimes that were committed on children,” Cameron said.

Pell took a leave of absence from his duties in Rome to return to Australia to fight the charges. He has vehemently denied the allegations, saying last month, “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

The pope has said he will wait for Australian justice to run its course before making a judgment of Pell himself.

For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he served as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney. But more recently, Pell became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican to interview him last year.

Pell is free ahead of his court hearing, when he may formally apply for bail.

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