Pope Francis has granted Cardinal Pell leave of absence as Vatican finance chief while he fights allegations of historic sex abuse.
Australian police have charged the cardinal with multiple counts of historical sex assaults on Thursday, making him the highest Church official to ever be charged with such allegations.
Police in Victoria said they had summoned Cardinal Pell to appear in an Australian court to face the charges.
Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton, although he did not give any further details of the allegations.
The cardinal has been ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
Speaking at a press conference, Cardinal Pell was defiant, saying: “I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sex abuse is abhorrent to me.”
He also criticised the way the investigation had been conducted: “There have been leaks to media, there has been relentless character assassination – and for more than a month a decision on whether to bring charges.”
“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court,” he added.
A spokesman for the Cardinal said he “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.”
In a statement, the Vatican said:
“The Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed in Australia against Card. George Pell for decades-old actions that have been attributed to him. Having become aware of the charges, Card. Pell, acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognizing the importance of his participation to ensure that the process is carried out fairly, and to foster the search for truth. The Holy Father, having been informed by Card. Pell, has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself.
During the Prefect’s absence, the Secretariat for the Economy will continue to carry out its institutional tasks. The Secretaries will remain at their posts to carry forward the ordinary affairs of the dicastery, donec aliter provideatur. The Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration, and in particular, for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals (C9).
The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised. At the same time, it is important to recall that Card. Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors; has cooperated in the past with Australian authorities (for example, in his depositions before the Royal Commission); has supported the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and finally, as a diocesan bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Vice President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said that “the Cardinal is entitled to the presumption of innocence, like any other member of the public, until his case is heard at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 18 July. The Cardinal has denied all allegations. In the past the Cardinal has consistently cooperated with the civil authorities, and justice now needs to run its course”.
Cardinal Pell was previously accused of abuse in 2002, but the case was thrown out by Justice A.J. Southwell, citing lack of evidence.