Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, the third most senior official in the Vatican and Australia’s most senior Catholic, has been charged with multiple historical sexual offences.
The charges – which stem from “multiple complainants” – were served in Australia early on Thursday. Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal.
He asserted his innocence and said the pontiff had given him leave of absence to return to Australia to defend himself.
“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false,” the 76-year-old told a news conference at the Vatican. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Pell’s high-profile departure, even if temporary, puts pressure on a pontiff who has made compassion for the vulnerable his watchword, and has declared zero tolerance for a child abuse scandal that has beset the Church for decades, but has struggled to overcome resistance in the Church hierarchy and clergy.
Pell was one of those whom Francis hand-picked to sit on a panel of nine cardinal-advisors to give a greater voice to the Church’s global flock, and the new broom he chose to reform the Vatican’s opaque finances.
But Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, had come under pressure from an Australian government commission on institutional child abuse, and had himself been under investigation for at least a year.
On Thursday, police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a country priest in the 1970s, said he faced “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences” from multiple complainants.
They did not detail the charges or specify the ages of the alleged victims or the period when the crimes were alleged to have occurred. He was ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18.
Pell, who declined to take questions, decried a “relentless character assassination” by the media and said he wanted to “clear my name and then return to my work in Rome”.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pell would not appear in public Church services for the time being.