The cardinal faces a four-week 'committal hearing' next year

Up to 50 witnesses could be called when Cardinal George Pell faces a committal hearing over historic sex abuse allegations in Australia next year.

Cardinal Pell, 76, is currently on leave of absence as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, the body in charge of the Vatican’s finances.

He is the most senior Church official ever to face such accusations, and he strongly denies all wrongdoing. Australian authorities have yet to reveal details of the charges against him.

The Age reports that around 50 witnesses could be called to a four-week committal hearing, which starts on March 5 next year, and will determine whether he will formally stand trial.

The cardinal’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, said the prosecution was calling “an awful lot of witnesses” and had presented a “voluminous” amount of evidence. He said the defence hopes to prove that “what was alleged was impossible”.

Magistrate Belinda Wallington gave the defence permission cross-examine most of the witnesses. Richter said his questions would be “short and to the point”.

The case will return to court next month for a further preliminary hearing.