ROME —- One of the most senior Vatican officials to be charged with sexual offenses denied on Thursday the allegations levied against him by Australian police, saying he would take a leave of absence as one of Pope Francis’ chief advisers to defend himself.
Speaking to reporters in the Vatican, Cardinal George Pell denounced “relentless character assassination” in the media and confirmed he would return to his native Australia to face the charges. Australian police earlier Thursday announced that Pell faces multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offenses,” that nation’s term for charges related to past conduct.
Pell – Australia’s senior-most Catholic prelate – has for years faced questions in his role in the staggering scale of sexual abuse by the Australian church. But he has never before been directly charged. The controversy is a challenge to Pope Francis’ attempts to address the church’s long-running abuse scandal, particularly since many of the details of the Australian issues were well-known at the time the pontiff appointed him to his current role.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” the 76-year-old cardinal said.
The Vatican, meanwhile, said it had learned of the charges “with regret” and that Francis appreciated the cardinal’s honesty and commitment during his three years working on reforming the Holy See’s finances.
Spokesman Greg Burke noted in the statement to reporters that Pell had in the past “repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable” acts of abuse against minors.
The cardinal’s role in the functioning of the Vatican has been described as crucial, and he is seen as the second most powerful official in Rome after the pope.
Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton of Australia’s Victoria state announced Thursday that Pell had been summoned to face multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offense.”
He will appear before a Melbourne court on July 18.
Pell has been dogged for years by questions of whether he was aware of sexual abuse by priests. In 2016, he testified, via video, to an Australian court over abuse of minors.
Pell was an adviser to the Bishop of Ballarat through the 1970s before becoming the archbishop of first Melbourne, and then Sydney. He was chosen to reform the church’s antiquated and opaque finances in 2014.
One victim of sexual abuse in Ballarat said Thursday that he did not feel any happiness at the charges against Pell, who was the episcopal vicar for education in the district in 1974, when the abuse against him took place.
“There is a commonality right around the world – it has been a global phenomena,” Peter Blenkiron, who was sexually abused at St. Patrick’s College in Ballarat. “We can’t let any one person take the spotlight from what needs to happen.”
Pell’s guilt or innocence is less important than the need to reform the church globally to prevent future sexual abuse, Blenkiron said.
“There are so many families that have lost a parent and brothers and sisters. It is so raw in Ballarat,” he said.
The allegations against Pell have split Australian society. Former prime minister and prominent conservative Tony Abbott described the cardinal as a “very fine man indeed,” reflecting a view among some members of the Catholic establishment that Pell is being held responsible by elements of the media and left-wing activists for abuse in the broader church.
A recently published book, “The Cardinal,” written by a journalist who has pursued Pell for years, was withdrawn from sale in Australia on Thursday after the charges were filed because of the legal risk it could influence a future jury.
The cardinal has faced several other allegations related to the Australian abuse situation, including that he sought to give financial aid to priests who had been jailed on pedophilia charges. The Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi claimed this year he found documents tying Pell to the jailed priests.