Senior Catholic Church member Cardinal Pell appears in court

The most senior member of the Catholic Church ever to be charged with sexual abuse has declared his innocence on his first day in court.

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican treasurer, arrived at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court flanked by nearly a dozen police officers, who escorted him through a huge pack outside.

Two dozen cameras, a media throng and Pell's supporters and critics queued outside from 6am on Wednesday, in the biggest crowd the court’s ever drawn.

But despite the extraordinary level of attention, it was business as usual for the Melbourne court, and as Pell entered the building he was checked for weapons by security guards.

At times, debate in the queue became tense, as Pell's church supporters clashed with others who feel he has a case to answer.

A smattering of applause broke out as he entered - though it isn't clear whether that came from supporters or those who’ve been waiting to see him in court.

The former Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney took his seat quietly in the front row, dressed in the black robes and white collar typically worn by the Catholic clergy.

Journalists, supporters and abuse victims' groups packed joined him in the small, rectangular courtroom, which left many others forced to wait outside.

The filing hearing itself was over in minutes, but comes after years of allegations.

Details of the charges have not been released, but the historic sex abuse case involves several complainants and multiple charges.

Pell wasn't required to enter a plea until a magistrate decides if the case will go to trial.

But through his lawyer, Robert Richter QC, the Cardinal declared he will plead not guilty.

Pell has long denied the allegations, and last month in a Vatican press conference said he was looking forward to his day in court.

The hearing set a date for his next appearance and begins a case that could take years to resolve. It's also the closest sex abuse charges have ever come to the Pope himself.

Pell is a trusted adviser to Pope Francis and the third most powerful man at the Vatican. As treasurer he controls Catholic Church finances, estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

It's only the start of a lengthy case - Pell will be back on October 6, where a judge will decide if he'll go to trial.

But it's also a glimpse of the spotlight to come in the most high-profile sex abuse case ever levelled against Catholic clergy.