A high-ranking Catholic Church member has appeared in court charged with multiple historical sexual offences relating to several complainants.

Cardinal George Pell, 76, Pope Francis's former finance minister, is the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis.

Pell was charged with sexual assault in June 2017 following an investigation by Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Pope Francis promoted Cardinal George Pell to finance minister at The Vatican Credit: AP

The complainants, who cannot be identified, appeared at Melbourne Magistrates Court via video link. The number of alleged victims and their testimony cannot be made public.

The Cardinal, Australia's top Vatican clergyman, denies any wrongdoing though details of the allegations have remained unclear.

He has indicated he will plead not guilty if the committal hearing, which is expected to last a month, finds there is sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial.

Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Sydney before moving to The Vatican Credit: AP

Though Pell's lawyer Robert Richter did not object to complainant's appearance via video link, he did question why one would be allowed to appear with a "support dog".

He said: "I always thought that dogs were for children and very old people."

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

The Vatican, Cardinal Pell's place of work since 2014 Credit: AP

Pell was Archbishop of Sydney before he was promoted to the Vatican as a prefect of the church's economy ministry in 2014. He intends to return to that job once the criminal charges are resolved.

In 2016 Pell testified from Rome by video to Australia's longest-running royal commission, the country's highest form of inquiry, which is investigating claims of sexual abuse.

In 2017 Australian police charged him with historical sexual assault following several complaints.

  • Watch Cardinal George Pell's statement at the Vatican in 2017:

At the time he said he was "looking forward to having my day in court" so he can clear his name.

He added: "I'm innocent of these charges. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."