By Sonali Paul and Byron Kaye

 

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Lawyers for Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell asked an Australian court on Monday to allow a support person to sit with him through a four-week pre-trial hearing into charges of historical sexual offences because of his age and ill health.

 

Pell, 76, a top adviser to Pope Francis, did not speak as he was escorted by police through a group of media and protesters into Melbourne Magistrates' Court for the start of the hearing.

 

Pell was summoned by Australian police last year and is the most senior Catholic official to face such charges. Details have not been made public.

 

His lawyers have said at past administrative hearings that he will plead not guilty to all charges. He is not required to enter a formal plea until a magistrate determines if prosecutors have enough evidence for a case to be committed to a full trial.

The court was open to the public for less than half an hour for legal arguments after it began.

It was later closed while Pell's accusers were questioned via video link from a remote facility, which is normal under Australian rules for cases involving sexual offences.

The hearing was expected to remain closed for up to two weeks.

Prosecutor Mark Gibson asked the court to allow Pell's accusers to have an assistant and a support dog next to them for comfort. Both requests were granted.

Coop, a black Labrador, is used by courts in Victoria state, of which Melbourne is the capital, to ease the trauma for people testifying in sexual assault and family violence cases.

Pell's lawyer, Robert Richter, initially questioned the defence request for Pell's accusers to have a support dog with them while testifying.

"I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people," Richter said.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington replied: "No, they're also there for vulnerable and traumatised people."

Richter also said it would only be fair to also allow his client to have a support person with him due to his "age and medical condition", which Wallington said she would allow.

Richter did not say what type of assistant would accompany Pell and no other details were available.

Pell is on a leave of absence from his Vatican role as Pope Francis' economy minister, which he started in 2014. The pontiff has said he will not comment on the case until it is over.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in MELBOURNE and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; Editing by Paul Tait and Neil Fullick)