On Thursday, police in Melbourne, Australia, announced criminal sex abuse charges against Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican finance chief and a top adviser to Pope Francis, saying he will face trial for unspecified multiple "historical sexual assault offenses," suggesting he is being accused of sexual abuse many years ago. At the Vatican, Pell said he would take an immediate leave from his position as the top Vatican official, but not step down, and return to Australia to fight the allegations. "I repeat that I am innocent of these charges, they are false," he said, and he is looking forward to answering them in court after months of "relentless character assassination."
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said Pell has been ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18, that none of the multiple allegations against him have yet been tested in court, and that "Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process." Pell, 76, was archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney before Pope Francis put him in charge of reforming the Vatican's finances in 2014. He is the highest-ranking Catholic official to be accused of sexual abuse in the church's slowly unfolding sexual abuse scandal. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said it was with regret that the Holy See learned of the charges, and said the financial reforms would continue during Pell's absence.
Earlier this year, a high-level Australian state commission found that 7 percent of Catholic priests in the country were accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2010. Pell, who has faced accusations of mishandling clerical sex abuse when he was an archbishop, testified twice in person and once over video, citing age and illness. The accusations that he himself sexually abused anyone are more recent; Victoria detectives interviewed him at the Vatican last year.