SYDNEY • Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis who is the third-most powerful figure in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic, was yesterday charged with historical sex offences in a case that has rocked the Church.
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 against Pell 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.
Hours after becoming the highest-profile Catholic cleric to face such charges, the Vatican finance chief said he had been a victim of "relentless character assassination" and vowed to clear his name and return to work.
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 am innocent of these charges," the 76-year-old said at a press conference. "They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
In a strongly supportive statement, the Vatican said Pell's staff would continue his work in his absence and noted Pope Francis's respect for the Australian's "honesty" and "energetic dedication" to his work on Church financial reform.
The tone of the statement echoed Pope Francis' comment last year that Pell, one of his closest advisers, should not be subject to "a media verdict, a verdict based on gossip".
But Pell's high-profile departure, even if only temporary, poses a dilemma for a pontiff who has vowed zero tolerance for such offences. It may also have implications for Pope Francis' drive to reform Vatican finances, which has been spearheaded by Pell, who also sits on a panel of nine cardinals from around the world who advise the Pope.
A lawyer for two unidentified men who had made abuse claims against Pell said they were "over the moon" about the charges. "It's been very difficult for them to stick their neck out," the lawyer, Ms Ingrid Irwin, told Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper. "To come out against someone who is second to God, in some people's minds, has caused all sorts of problems for them."
The announcement coincides with the final stages of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
Pell told the commission last year that the Church had made "catastrophic" choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and relying too heavily on the counsel of priests to solve the problem.
But he angered victims by saying he was too ill to fly home, testifying instead from Rome. Then, last July, Victoria police confirmed that Pell himself was being investigated on suspicion of sexual abuse.
Pell has appeared before the commission three times, during which he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
It said in February that 7 per cent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but that the allegations were never investigated.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS