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Lawyer’s strike could delay Concordia trial

A court official has warned that national strike by Italian lawyers could delay the start of the manslaughter trial of the Costa Concordia's captain, charged for the cruise liner's deadly shipwreck in January 2012.

Lawyer's strike could delay Concordia trial
Costa Concordia claimed 32 lives when it crashed into rocks off the island of Giglio. Photo: AFP

The first hearing will take place as scheduled on Tuesday, but if defendant Francesco Schettino's lawyers tell the judge they are adhering to the strike, then the trial will get under way only on July 17th.

"We cannot know ahead of time," the official at the court in Grosseto, the nearest town to the site of the wreck, told the AFP on Thursday.

The next hearings after Tuesday are set for July 17th, 18th and 19th.

Travelling with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board, the cruise ship crashed into rocks off the island of Giglio and keeled over, sparking a panicky evacuation in a disaster that claimed 32 lives.

Schettino has been charged with multiple counts of manslaughter, as well with causing an environmental disaster, and abandoning the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated.

Four other crew members and a manager from ship owner Costa Crociere, Europe's top cruise operator, have agreed plea bargains which are likely to be confirmed in separate hearings.

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TRIAL

Up to 50 witnesses for Cardinal Pell sex abuse hearing

Up to 50 witnesses could be called to a hearing in March to determine if there is enough evidence for Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell to stand trial on sex abuse charges, a court heard on Friday.

Up to 50 witnesses for Cardinal Pell sex abuse hearing
Cardinal George Pell arrives for his committal hearing. Photo: Mal Fairclough/AFP

The 76-year-old, a top adviser to Pope Francis, is accused of multiple historical sexual offences relating to incidents that allegedly occurred long ago.

He is the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with criminal offences linked to the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.

The exact details and nature of the allegations against Pell have not been made public, other than they involve “multiple complainants”.

ANALYSIS: Charges against Cardinal Pell bring taint of scandal to the top of the Catholic Church

Pell has not had to enter a plea yet, but at his first appearance at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in July he instructed his lawyer to make clear he intended to plead not guilty.

“For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has,” barrister Robert Richter said at the time.

A frail-looking Pell returned to the same court Friday for a largely administrative hearing in which March 5 was set for the start of a four-week committal hearing to decide if there is enough evidence from the prosecution
for the case to go to trial.

Many of the details from Friday's hearing cannot be reported for legal reasons, but Magistrate Belinda Wallington said all witnesses would be allowed except five, meaning up to 50 could be called.

Pell, a former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop, returned from Rome in July to fight the charges.

At his first court appearance, he had to battle through a crush of national and international media as he walked the short distance from his barrister's office to the court's main entrance.

Leave of absence

Hunched over and looking weary, Australia's most powerful Catholic made the same slow trek to and from the court on Friday but with a much heavier police presence and less media, making no comment.

He did not react as several protesters called out abuse on his way in. He was also heckled with screams of “nowhere to hide” as he left.

Pell was not required to attend the hearing, but Australia's most powerful Catholic again opted to appear, having previously vowed to defend himself and clear his name after a two-year investigation led to him being charged on June 29th.

He has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who has made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican's powerful economic ministry.

But the scandal has rocked the church.

Australia's Catholic leaders have previously spoken out in support of him, describing Pell as a “thoroughly decent” man.

Supporters have set up a fund to help him pay his court costs, according to the Institute of Public Affairs, a high-profile conservative Australian think tank.

The allegations coincide with the final stages of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome.

By Daniel De Carteret