Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis' chief financial adviser and Australia's most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.

Cardinal George Pell arrives to make a statement at the Vatican, Thursday, June 29, 2017. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Vatican Cardinal George Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible.
Cardinal George Pell arrives to make a statement at the Vatican, Thursday, June 29, 2017. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Vatican Cardinal George Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible.

Australian police charged a top Vatican cardinal on Thursday with multiple counts of historical sexual assault offences, a stunning decision certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.

Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis' chief financial adviser and Australia's most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal. Pell, 76, was a priest in the rural Victorian town of Ballarat before he was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne. He has lived at the Vatican since 2014.

On Thursday at a press conference in Rome, the cardinal maintained his innocence and said that he was looking forward to "having my day in court" so that he could clear his name.

At a news conference called hours after Australian police charged him with multiple historical sex crimes, Pell said he would return to Australis to clear his name after a two-year investigation he described as "relentless character assassination."

"I'm looking forward to finally having my day in court. I'm innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

He said that Pope Francis had given him leave to defend himself against the charges.

Earlier Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said police had summoned Pell to appear in an Australian court to face multiple charges of "historic sexual offences," meaning offences that generally occurred some time ago.

"It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have , obviously, been tested in any court yet," Patton told reporters in Melbourne. "Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process."

Patton said there are multiple complainants against Pell, but gave no other details on the allegations against the cardinal. Pell was ordered to appear in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.

The Catholic Church in Australia said on Thursday that Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican treasurer, "strenuously denies" multiple sexual assault offences brought against him by Australian police.

"Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements," the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said in a statement.

"He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously," it said.

The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised "zero tolerance" policy about sex abuse.

For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.

His actions as archbishop came under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.

Australia's years-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the nation's highest form of inquiry – has found shocking levels of abuse in Australia's Catholic Church. The commission revealed earlier this year that seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.

Last year, Pell acknowledged during his testimony to the commission that the Catholic Church had made "enormous mistakes" in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.

Accusations against Pell

But more recently, Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview the cardinal.

It is unclear what allegations the charges announced on Thursday relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s when Pell was a senior priest in Melbourne.

Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican. That leaves two likely outcomes: Either Pell volunteers to return to Australia to fight the charges, or the Vatican could tell the cardinal to do so, said Donald Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University.

"I would think that the pope would be very concerned to think that one of his cardinals, and someone who holds a high position within the Vatican government structure, is being wanted on criminal charges in Australia," Rothwell said in a recent interview.

"So if the pope was to say, 'Well look, Cardinal Pell, I'd like you to return to Australia and mount a defence,' I'm sure Cardinal Pell would probably follow that instruction ... In the case of someone like Cardinal Pell, the sway that the pope and the church has over him is much greater than the ordinary citizen."

Picked by Pope Francis

The charges put Francis in a thorny position. In 2014, Francis won cautious praise from victims' advocacy groups when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about "best practises" to fight abuse and protect children.

But the commission has since lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left. Francis also scrapped the commission's signature proposal – a tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse – after Vatican officials objected.

In addition, Francis drew heated criticism for his 2015 appointment of a Chilean bishop accused by victims of helping cover up for Chile's most notorious paedophile. The pope was later caught on videotape labelling the parishioners who opposed the nomination of being "leftists" and "stupid."

When Francis was asked last year about the accusations against Pell, he said he wanted to wait for Australian justice to take its course before judging.

"It's true, there is a doubt," he told reporters en route home from Poland. "We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgement – a judgement of gossip – because that won't help."

"Once justice has spoken, I will speak," he said.

Francis appointed Pell in 2014 to a five-year term to head the Vatican's new economy secretariat, giving him broad rein to control all economic, administrative, personnel and procurement functions of the Holy See. The mandate has since been restricted to performing more of an oversight role.

History of shielding abuse

The Vatican has a history of shielding its own: when Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace in 2002 over his cover-up of abuse in Boston, victims expressed outrage that St John Paul II gave him a plum position as archpriest of a Rome basilica.

The transfer spared Law what would likely have been years of litigation and testimony in US courts as victims sued the archdioceses for their abuse, though Law himself was never criminally charged with wrongdoing.

In the 1980s, the Vatican refused to cooperate with Italian investigators when one of its officials, Archbishop Paul C Marcinkus, was indicted over a banking scandal. The Vatican successfully cited his diplomatic immunity.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies