The dome of St. Peter's Basilica is seen through trees in the Vatican Gardens Oct. 3. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Last week, Church leaders from Australia traveled to Rome to meet with Vatican authorities to discuss the various crises Catholics in the country are currently undergoing, largely tied to a history of clerical sex abuse.

According to an Oct. 7 communique from the Vatican, the leadership of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference traveled to Rome last week to meet with officials from the Vatican's Secretariat of State and other relevant offices of the Holy See “for a wide-ranging discussion concerning the situation of the Catholic Church in Australia at this time.”

Topics covered in the discussions included the ongoing investigations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which recently suggested that the Catholic Church be legally bound to break the seal of Confession when sexual abuse has been disclosed within the Sacrament. They also recently carried out a third investigation into Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, who is currently facing multiple charges of past sexual abuse in Australia.

Other topics covered, according to the communique, included the relationship between the Church and society as a whole, the re-establishment of trust following the abuse crisis and a call for greater participation of laypersons in decision-making roles in the Church in Australia. Members of the Australian delegation were Archbishop Denis James Hart of Melbourne, President of the bishops’ conference; Archbishop Mark Benedict Coleridge of Brisbane, Vice-President of the conference, and Justice Neville John Owen of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council in Australia.

The main discussion took place Thursday, Oct. 5, while a conference on Child Dignity in the Digital World was taking place simultaneously at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. Key participants from the Vatican side were the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher; the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, P.S.S.; and the Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi.

The meeting fell just two months after the Royal Commission, established in 2013, released 85 proposed changes to the country's criminal justice system. In addition to suggestions tightening the law on sentencing standards in cases of historical sexual abuse, the use of evidence and grooming, the commission recommended that the failure to report sexual abuse, even in religious confessions, be made “a criminal offense.” The suggestion was met with harsh opposition by Church leaders, who called the decision a “government intrusion” into the spiritual realm, which until now has been respected and upheld.

A day after the meeting took place, news broke that Cardinal Pell, who returned to Australia from the Vatican in June to face several charges of historical sexual abuse, will return to court in March for a hearing in which he will defend himself against witness testimonies. Police in Victoria, Australia announced at the end of June that they would be charging Pell, 76, after several witnesses had come forward with accusations in 2016. As the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy since 2013 and a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis, Pell is the most senior Vatican official to ever be charged with abuse.

With the permission of Pope Francis, Pell took leave from his responsibilities in the Vatican in order to return to Australia for the court proceedings. At a brief, preliminary hearing in July shortly after returning, Pell told the court he would be pleading “not guilty” to all charges, and will maintain his innocence, as he has from the beginning. According to BBC News, the committal hearing will be held March 5, with up to 50 possible witnesses available to give testimony. The hearing is expected to last four weeks, after which the magistrate will decide if there is enough evidence to take the case to trial.