Australian police have charged a top Vatican cardinal with multiple counts of historical sexual assault offences.
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.
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said on Thursday police have summoned Pell to appear in an Australian court to face multiple charges of “historic sexual offences”, meaning offences that generally occurred some time ago.
Patton said the 76-year-old was charged on summons and was required to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 for a hearing.
Patton would not take any questions, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.
The Catholic Church in Australia said Pell “strenuously denies” the multiple sexual assault offences.
“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 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.”
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.
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.