Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic and the third-highest ranking official in the Vatican, is taking leave from the Holy See to return to Australia to face sexual assault charges.
Pell yesterday confirmed that he had spoken to Pope Francis and had been granted leave.
“There has been relentless character assassination for months... I am looking forward finally to having my day in court, I am innocent of these charges, they are false,” he said. “I’ve kept Pope Francis the holy father regularly informed during these long months and have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week most recently a day or so ago.”
“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 an opportunity to clear my name and return back to work,” he added.
His leave came after he was charged with multiple historical sexual assault offenses in Melbourne yesterday. He has confirmed that he would appear in person in Melbourne magistrates court on July 18.
The news, which broke in the middle of the night in Rome, represents what is likely the biggest crisis of Pope Francis’ papacy.
The Vatican declined to comment immediately on the news, but inside the Vatican questions were swirling about how Francis would respond to the stunning charges and whether his long-standing support of Pell — despite his ideological differences with the staunchly conservative Australian — would tarnish his own reputation.
The pope has historically been loath to respond to legally unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse against senior clerics.
The fact that legal charges have been filed means his support for Pell will now be heavily scrutinized and the case will be seen as a test of whether the pope, who has claimed that the church ought to have zero tolerance for sexual offenders, will be willing to cast out one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican.
The Vatican later responded in a statement.
“The Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed against Cardinal George Pell... 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,” the statement said.
“The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system, which will have to decide the merits of the questions raised. At the same time, it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly — and repeatedly — condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors,” it added.
“He 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 diocese and bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures — both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse,” it said.
“The Holy Father — having been informed by Cardinal Pell — has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself,” it added.
In Melbourne, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said there were multiple complainants.
It is not clear which allegations the charges relate to.
The cardinal is a former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne.
Since 2014 he has been prefect of the secretariat for the economy — the Vatican’s treasurer. He was ordained in Rome in 1966.
When Pope Francis was asked about allegations against Pell last year, he told reporters: “It’s true, there is a doubt. We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgement — a judgement of gossip — because that won’t help. Once justice has spoken, I will speak.”
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