Police in Australia have charged the continent’s most senior ranking Catholic with multiple counts of sexual assault, bringing the church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal to the highest ranks of the Vatican.
Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton of the Victoria Police made the announcement during a news conference.
Cardinal George Pell, 76, is chief financial adviser to Pope Francis and the highest ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal that goes back decades. Pell is due to appear in magistrate’s court in Melbourne, Australia, on July 18 for a hearing, Patton told reporters.
Pell is charged with “historical sexual offenses,” which under Australian law are alleged offenses that happened some time ago. Patton said there are multiple complaints against Pell but he did not elaborate.
Pell denied the accusations Thursday, and denounced what he called a “relentless character assassination” in the media, the Associated Press reported. He said he would return to Australia to face the charges.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pope Francis had learned with “regret” of the charges and granted Pell a leave of absence to defend himself, according to the AP. He said the Vatican’s financial reforms would continue in Pell’s absence.
Patton said the cardinal would not be treated any differently than anyone else facing such charges.
“Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation,” Patton said.
The charges represent a setback to Pope Francis, who has promised a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to sex abuse.
For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney, the Associated Press reported. His actions as archbishop came under tight scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to child sex abuse.
Australia’s years-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found high levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the last several decades, the Associated Press reported.
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.
But more recently, Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation.
Pell studied at St. Patrick’s College and Corpus Christi College, both in Victoria, before studying at Urban University in Rome, according to The Age. He has a doctorate in church history from Oxford and was ordained in 1966.