By Philip Pullella
ROME (Reuters) - Australian Cardinal George Pell on Sunday becomes the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify on sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church at a hearing that victims have flown half way around the world to attend.
Pell, 74, who said he was unable to travel to his native Australia because of heart problems, will answer questions from a Rome hotel put via video link by Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.
While strictly speaking an Australian affair concerning events decades ago, the hearing has taken on wider implications about accountability of Church leaders because of Pell's high position in the Vatican, where he serves as finance minister.
After the Commission allowed Pell to testify from Rome, it bowed to demands by victims' groups to observe. A national crowd funding campaign raised the money to fly about 15 victims and supporters so they could be in the same room with Australia's most senior Catholic clergyman.
"This is the most Catholic city in the world, in every sense," Andrew Collins, who was a abused by priests as a boy and is one of the victims who traveled to Rome, told the Australian newspaper The Courier.
"It is enemy territory and we are being dragged into the belly of the beast. But we are not here for a bloody battle. We're here for the truth".
Pell has become the focal point for victims' frustration over what they say has been an inadequate response to abuse claims from the Catholic Church. He is not accused himself of sexual abuse.
The hearing, expected to last four days, will take place in the hotel ballroom. Pell will sit at the front, answering questions by video link, while the victims will sit in a row of chairs facing him, with media sitting behind them.
CARDINAL DENIES WRONGDOING
Last year, Pell denied accusations made at Commission hearings in Australia that he had tried to bribe a victim to remain quiet, that he ignored another complaint and that he was complicit in the transfer of a pedophile priest in Ballarat, Australia. The alleged events took place in the 1970s and 1980s when he was a priest.
Pell and his supporters say he has done no wrong and that he has become a lightning rod for all cases of abuse.
Last year, Australia's bishops rallied behind Pell, calling him in a joint statement "a man of integrity who is committed to the truth".
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
Pell has blamed a former culture of silence in the Church for the cover-up of child abuse by clergy, making it difficult
to know the full extent of crimes. He has twice apologized for
its slow response.
Ironically, the Rome hearing starts just hours before the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, where "Spotlight", a film about the systematic cover up of sexual abuse in the Church in Boston, has been nominated for six Academy Awards.
"We just want an acknowledgment," Peter Blenkiron, 53, who was abused at the age of 11, told Reuters. "If Pell said 'what we did was wrong and it will never happen again', I would be the first to shake his hand."
(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell and Jarni Blakkarly; Editing by Janet Lawrence)