The Vatican's finance chief, Australia's highest ranking Roman Catholic and one of Pope Francis' most senior advisors, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged with multiple sex offenses by Australian police in the latest blow to the Vatican’s attempts to put decades of child sex abuse scandals behind it.
"Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offenses," Victoria state police deputy commissioner Shane Patton said, following a police investigation that followed the same processes and procedures applied in other sex abuse cases. Cardinal Pell has been summoned to appear in court in Melbourne on July 18 to face the charges, which relate to complaints made by more than one person, according to the FT. To attend the hearing the 76-year-old would have to return to Australia from Rome, where he has been tasked by the Pope with cleaning up the Vatican’s finances.
“He is to appear in Melbourne magistrates’ court on July 18 in a filing hearing and it relates to multiple charges and multiple complainants,” added Patton.
There might be up to 10 alleged victims, Australian news website News.com.au reports, adding that they were minors at the time of the alleged assaults and are now aged from their late 20s to their early 50s. The allegations are believed to stretch from the time that Pell was a priest in the Australian town of Ballarat to when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. It is alleged that the cardinal groomed boys at a swimming pool in Ballarat in the 1970s and committed sexual assaults at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, according to The Australian.
Since 2014, Pell has lived in the Vatican, with which Australia has no extradition treaty, meaning the cardinal could potentially avoid prosecution if he chose not to return to his home country. However, the Australian Catholic Church said in a statement Thursday that the cardinal "will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name."
"He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously," the statement added.
Over the past 18 months Cardinal Pell has publicly denied sex abuse allegations that were leaked to the Australian media. In July, ABC, the Australian state broadcaster, interviewed two complainants, Lyndon Monument and Damian Dignan, about alleged inappropriate touching at a Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s. They both allege the cardinal touched their genitals while playing a game in the pool where he would throw them and the other boys up in the air. Cardinal Pell has repeatedly denied these allegations.
When news of the police probe initially emerged last year, Cardinal Pell wrote to Robin Scott, Victoria’s acting minister of police. He formally requested an inquiry into the “maliciously timed leaking of details of a police investigation into purported allegations” against him.
In a statement issued by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, Cardinal Pell said he “strenuously denied” all the allegations.“Cardinal Pell 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,” said the statement.
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Cardinal Pell has appeared several times at a long-running Australian government commissioned inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse, most recently last year via video-link from Rome. During that appearance Cardinal Pell denied he knew about abuse perpetrated by paedophile priests in the Australian town of Ballarat in the 1970s and 1980s. He has also denied claims that he tried to “silence” a victim of abuse.
Cardinal Pell cited ill health when making a decision not to return to Australia to appear before the committee in person.
Pell, 76, was promoted to cardinal in 2003 and three years ago he was appointed to serve as the Vatican treasurer, considered to be the third most powerful post behind the Pope. While it is the first time that formal charges are brought against the clergyman, he was subject of an investigation in the early 2000s after claims emerged that he had molested an altar boy back in the 1960s, The Age reported. At the time, Pell denied the allegations against him, dubbing them "lies."
In February, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released a report stating that more than 4,000 children, mostly boys, have been allegedly sexually abused by Catholic priests in Australia over a period of decades.
According to the investigation, since the 1950s some 7 percent of priests in the country were alleged perpetrators. The commission also said that since the 1980s, the Catholic Church has paid over $200 million to victims of alleged sex abuse committed by priests in Australia over decades.
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Cardinal Pell is the most senior Catholic church official to have been charged with sex offences. However, a series of international probes into the Church’s handling of sex abuse have uncovered evidence that paedophile priests were regularly moved between parishes rather than defrocked and referred to police.
The charges laid against Cardinal Pell will cast a cloud over the Pope Francis’s efforts to draw a line under child abuse issues that have dogged the church for decades. In a December letter to bishops, the Pope said there was “zero tolerance” for child sexual abuse by clergy.
Pope Francis has stood by Cardinal Pell throughout the Australian abuse scandals. When asked about Cardinal Pell last July, the Argentine pontiff said that “one cannot judge” before the judiciary had taken its course. “After the justice system speaks, I will speak,” the Pope added.