Australian cardinal facing child abuse probe
Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, is facing a police investigation over an alleged series of child sexual assaults, including claims he inappropriately "grabbed" boys at a swimming pool in the state of Victoria.
In a statement issued by his office in Rome, Cardinal Pell, the Vatican's finance chief, emphatically denied the allegations, accusing police and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) of "conspiring" to destroy his reputation.
He accused police of illegally leaking "inaccurate and unfounded" allegations.
"I have done nothing wrong," he said. "I bear no ill will and have no desire to cause them [the alleged victims] harm, but what they say about me is not true."
Two former students at St Alipius, a school in the town of Ballarat, have publicly accused the cardinal of abuse dating back to the 1970s during sessions at a local swimming pool. Cardinal Pell (pictured inset) was responsible for education in the area and regularly visited the students.
"He would play games like throw the kids out of the water," Lyndon Monument, a former student, told ABC.
"You know, his hand touching your genitals and stuff on the outside of your bathers or shorts. And then that became hand down the front of the pants or your bathers or whatever you call them."
Damian Dignan, another student, said Cardinal Pell would "grab you around the testes".
"It got to a stage where every time he picked you up, it was there," he said.
Darren Mooney, another student, said Cardinal Pell would regularly appear naked in the dressing rooms.
"A man in his position should know better than to be undressing in front of kids," he said.
Police in Victoria confirmed that they have been investigating allegations against Cardinal Pell for a year but have not yet decided whether to press charges.
Graham Ashton, the police chief commissioner for Victoria, said they "still are investigating".
Cardinal Pell (75), who holds a doctorate from Oxford, has long been an imposing figure in Australia and has been heavily criticised for his handling of child sex abuse by Catholic priests. He is known for his staunchly conservative views on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, which he once said was a "worse moral scandal" than child sex abuse by priests.
Cardinal Pell has also denied accusations of covering up abuse within the Church, particularly in Ballarat, the site of some of Australia's worst child sex abuse offences. The offences involved a group of five paedophile priests who were shuffled around the diocese, where they preyed on hundreds of children.
Police in Victoria said they were awaiting advice from prosecutors on whether to continue inquiries into Cardinal Pell's alleged abuse and will consider sending detectives to Rome.
"It's been a long investigation... there are a lot of leads that have to be followed up," said Mr Ashton.
"Normally we would interview someone towards the end of an inquiry."
Mr Ashton rejected claims by Cardinal Pell that police leaked information to the media.
Cardinal Pell, who was hand-picked by Pope Francis to clean up the Vatican's finances, offered his resignation, as required, when he turned 75 last month.
But the Pope reportedly requested he serve another three years.