By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Vatican's Australian-born finance controller has a heart condition and travel to Australia to give evidence at an inquiry into child abuse presents a serious health risk, lawyers for Catholic Cardinal George Pell said on Friday.
Pell, a man once seen as a contender to become pope, had been scheduled to testify at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Dec. 16 but asked to be able to give evidence by videolink.
The judge chairing the government-run inquiry has said he wanted Pell, the Vatican's prefect of the secretariat for the economy, to give evidence in person. However, his appearance was delayed for two months at the request of his lawyers.
That delay frustrated victims and their advocates, who heard testimony last year that priests suspected of abuse in Pell's former diocese were moved between parishes and put in church-appointed rehabilitation instead of being reported to police.
Pell, 74, has strongly denied those allegations.
On Friday, one of Pell's lawyers told the inquiry that doctors in Rome still considered it a health risk for the former Sydney archbishop to travel to Australia to give evidence.
"He certainly wants to avoid the appearance that he's avoiding giving evidence," Pell's lawyer, Alan Myers, told the inquiry in Melbourne. Myers said Pell's doctor considered it a "serious risk to his health" to travel to Australia.
Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic, is considered the star witness in an inquiry that has been running for several years. His request to testify via videolink angered abuse victims, who want him to testify in person about how such cases were handled under his watch.
Myers tendered a doctor's report, dated in January, that he requested be kept confidential. Judge Peter McClellan said he would rule on that, and on Pell's requests to testify via videolink, on Monday.
Gail Furness, a lawyer representing the government, suggested Pell find other ways to travel to Australia.
Kristine Hanscombe, a lawyer representing several victims, requested that the inquiry seek its own advice from a cardiologist and that Pell's health report be made public.
Paul O'Dwyer, another lawyer for victims, said of Myer's request that the doctor's report remain confidential: "When you contrast what witness after witness has had to spell out about the most intimate details of their life in the witness box, sometimes not anonymously, then this fades into insignificance."
McClellan noted that, while Pell's lawyers had said it would be difficult for him to travel to Australia, "it doesn't say that he can't come".
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Paul Tait)