Up to 50 witnesses, four weeks slated for Cardinal Pell's committal hearing

Up to 50 witnesses could be called and a "voluminous" amount of evidence discussed when Cardinal George Pell, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic official, faces a committal hearing next year on charges of historical sex abuse.

Cardinal Pell, 76, who has vigorously denied all allegations of sexual abuse, returned to Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday for a 20-minute administrative hearing.

The court was told 50 witnesses could be called at a four-week committal hearing - which will determine whether he stands trial - which is due to start on March 5.

Some witnesses will be former choirboys and are to be cross-examined over what allegedly happened in St Patrick's Cathedral.

In legal discussion, the cardinal's high-profile defence barrister Robert Richter, QC, said the prosecution case comprised "an awful lot of witnesses", and said the amount of evidence was "voluminous".

Cardinal Pell was charged in June with historical sexual offences involving multiple complainants. Details of the charges are yet to be revealed.

Mr Richter said he hoped to prove that "what was alleged was impossible".

"We need to explore whether it could have happened ... whether it didn't happen," he said.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington gave the defence team permission to cross-examine most witnesses but ruled out a further five.

"We are dealing with historical events and memories are not static," she said.

"I tend to think it's appropriate for witnesses' memories to be explored."

Parts of what was discussed in court cannot be reported for legal reasons.

Mr Richter said much of his cross-examination would be "short and to the point".

The case is set to return to court next month for more discussions on the number of witnesses and what they will be questioned about.

Cardinal Pell slowly walked the 100 metres from his lawyer's offices to the court shortly before 9am, surrounded by dozens of cameras and reporters.

A protester outside screamed abuse at him as he made his way up Lonsdale Street to the court entrance.

The cardinal and his legal team were flanked by six police officers as they walked to court. One lane of Lonsdale Street was blocked off to provide space for the media pack as it spilled onto the road.

Cardinal Pell did not have to walk through the metal detectors as others attending court do, but had to pass his belongings through the security scanner.

Before the hearing began he chatted quietly with two women, one seated either side of him.

Media gathered outside the court from before dawn to secure a seat inside.

Victim advocacy representatives were also outside, some holding signs.

"It doesn't matter how high up the tree you are, it doesn't matter how much access to money you have, no one is above the law," Brian Cherrie said.

Friday's turnout was more low-key than Cardinal Pell's first court appearance on July 26 when a 100-strong group of national and international media swarmed the cardinal outside court.

Unlike the previous hearing, there were empty seats in the courtroom on Friday.

Once the hearing was over, the cardinal made the slow walk back to his lawyer's offices, again flanked by police.

As he left, a woman screamed at him and then words were exchanged between one of the cardinal's supporters and several victims advocates.

At his first appearance, Mr Richter told the packed court his client would plead not guilty, although he is only required to formally enter a plea if committed to trial.

The cardinal, who is understood to be the most senior Catholic official to ever face charges of sexual offences, has taken leave from his position as Vatican treasurer to be in Australia to fight the charges.

With AAP

The story Up to 50 witnesses, four weeks slated for Cardinal Pell's committal hearing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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