Australia’s most senior Catholic, who serves as one of Pope Francis’ closest Vatican aides, is being charged with multiple counts of sexual assault.
George Cardinal Pell is the highest-ranking Catholic official ever charged in the church’s decades-long sexual abuse scandal.
Australian authorities said early Thursday there are multiple complaints against Pell, which the cardinal labeled as part of “relentless character assassination” directed at him in a statement.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false,” said Pell. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
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He is facing charges of “historical sexual assault offenses” and is taking a leave from Rome in order to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said the 76-year-old denies the allegations and will return to Australia “to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements.”
In his statement, Pell thanked the Catholic Church for its support, stating, “I have kept Pope Francis regularly informed throughout this lengthy process, and have spoken to him in recent days about the need to take leave to clear my name.”
A recent state-run investigation in Australia found that 7% of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.
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Pell admitted during his own testimony before the commission that the church had made “enormous mistakes.” He has long been accused of hiding and mishandling cases of clergy abuse.
Two men, both now in their 40s, have said that Pell molested them while at a swimming pool in the late 1970s. He was questioned in Rome in October about the allegations against him.
“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,” Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said. “Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process.”
The cardinal previously served as the archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne before becoming the Pope’s chief financial adviser in 2014.
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Advocates for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse said the decision to charge Pell sends a powerful message.
“It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications, or standing,” said Pam Stavropoulos, the head of research for the Blue Knot Foundation, an Australian support group.
While the charges are sure to send shockwaves through the Vatican, Francis was cautious when asked about Pell last year.
“We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgment — a judgment of gossip — because that won’t help,” he said. “Once justice has spoken, I will speak.”
Vatican finance czar fights Aussie abuse probe allegations
The charges against Pell come less than a week after the Diocese of Brooklyn set up a fund to financially compensate people who were abused by clergy when they were kids.
With News Wire Services.
With Brian Lisi
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