'I have been completely clear in my total rejection of these allegations' - top Cardinal to be charged with multiple counts of sexual assault
Pope Francis' financial adviser is being charged in Australia with multiple counts of historical sexual assault, in a stunning move certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.
George Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.
He has denied the accusations and denounced what he called a "relentless character assassination"
A Vatican spokesman has said the Pope has given Cardinal Pell a "leave of absence" to defend himself.
The senior Cardinal said he is looking forward to his day in court to challenge the accusations.
"These matters have been under investigation now for two years," he said in Rome today.
"There have been leaks to the media. There has been relentless character assassination — relentless character assassination — and for more than a month, claims that a decision on whether to lay charges was imminent.
"I'm looking forward, finally, to having my day in court.
"I'm innocent of these charges. They are false.
"The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me".
He said he has kept the Pope "regularly informed" and has been given leave to return to Australia and fight the charges.
"All along, I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations.
"News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here back to Rome to work," he added.
Victoria state police deputy commissioner Shane Patton said police had summonsed Cardinal Pell, 76, to Australia to face multiple charges of "historical sexual assault offences".
Mr Patton said there were multiple complainants against the cardinal, but gave no other details of the allegations against him.
Cardinal Pell has been ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) June 29, 2017
"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," Mr Patton said 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 on sex abuse.
For years, Cardinal Pell has faced claims 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.
Australia's years-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - the nation's highest form of inquiry - has found shocking levels of abuse in the country's Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7% of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.
Last year, Cardinal Pell acknowledged during his evidence to the commission that the 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 vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian home town of Ballarat.
But more recently, Cardinal Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview him.
It is unclear what allegations the charges announced on Thursday relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Cardinal Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when he was a senior priest in Melbourne.
Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican, which leaves two likely outcomes: either Cardinal Pell volunteers to return to Australia to fight the charges or the Vatican could tell him to do so, said Donald Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University.
"I would think that the Pope would be very concerned to think that one of his cardinals, and someone who holds a high position within the Vatican government structure, is being wanted on criminal charges in Australia," Mr Rothwell said in a recent interview.
"So if the Pope was to say, 'Well look, Cardinal Pell, I'd like you to return to Australia and mount a defence', I'm sure Cardinal Pell would probably follow that instruction.
"In the case of someone like Cardinal Pell, the sway that the Pope and the church has over him is much greater than the ordinary citizen."
The charges put Pope Francis in a thorny position.
In 2014 he won cautious praise from victims' advocacy groups when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about "best practices" to fight abuse and protect children.
But the commission has since lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left.
Francis also scrapped the commission's signature proposal - a tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse - after Vatican officials objected.
In addition, Francis drew heated criticism for his 2015 appointment of a Chilean bishop accused by victims of helping cover up for Chile's most notorious paedophile.
The Pope was later caught on video labelling the parishioners who opposed the nomination of being "leftists" and "stupid".
When asked last year about the accusations against Cardinal Pell, Francis said he wanted to wait for Australian justice to take its course before judging.
"It's true, there is a doubt," he told reporters on his way home from Poland.
"We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgment - a judgment of gossip - because that won't help.
"Once justice has spoken, I will speak."
Francis appointed Cardinal Pell in 2014 to a five-year term to head the Vatican's new economy secretariat, giving him broad rein to control all economic, administrative, personnel and procurement functions of the Holy See.
The mandate has since been restricted to performing more of an oversight role.
The leading support group for victims of sexual abuse by priests called on the Pope to speak out about the charges against Cardinal Pell.
US-based survivors' network Snap noted that Francis had promised to work to "end the scourge of abuse by his clergy".
The group called on anyone with additional information about the Cardinal Pell case to come forward.
Who is Cardinal Pell?
- He was born on June 8, 1941, in the country town of Ballarat in the state of Victoria in Australia's south.
- He was ordained as a priest in 1966 and served in his home state from 1971 to 1983, including 10 years in Ballarat.
- In 1996 he became the Archbishop of Melbourne, a role in which he helped establish the "Melbourne Response", the Catholic Church's first formal system of handling abuse complaints in Australia.
- He was appointed Archbishop of Sydney, Australia's most senior Catholic role, in 2001.
- The following year, Pell stepped aside to face a closed hearing over abuse allegations dating back to the 1960s. The Church committee hearing the allegations found insufficient evidence to justify further action and Pell resumed his role.
- In 2003, Pell was made a cardinal.
- With the death of Pope John II in 2005, Australian media identify Pell as a contender to succeed him.
- Pell's work at the Vatican increased by 2012 and he was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to join a high-ranking papal assembly. In 2013, Pope Francis appointed him to an eight-member group to advise on reforming the Church.
- In 2014 he was appointed Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, the Vatican's first financial controller.
- Pell appeared at an Australian government inquiry into institutional child abuse in 20016, testifying via videolink from Rome because he was too sick to fly home. He said the Church made "catastrophic" choices by minimising its response to, and covering up, abuse complaints.
- Australian police travelled to Rome later that year to interview Pell about the abuse