29/06/2017 08:18 BST | Updated 29/06/2017 10:48 BST

Cardinal George Pell Charged With Historic Sex Offences, And Summonsed To Appear In Australian Court

Pell says he will fight charges and will return to Australia pending 'approval' by his doctors.

One of the world’s top Catholic officials, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged over “multiple” historical sex offences, police announced on Thursday. 

Pell, formerly a priest in Ballarat and Archbishop of Melbourne, and now a high-ranking official in Vatican City as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, has been accused by multiple people of historical sex assault offences.

Pope Francis’ chief financial adviser and Australia’s most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal.

Pell said he would return to Australia to fight the charges after being summonsed by police to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney issued a statement on behalf of Pell, saying the 76-year-old cardinal “strenuously denied all allegations” and would return to Australia to clear his name.

“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.

“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.”

Franco Origlia via Getty Images
Cardinal George Pell has been ordered to return to Australia from the Vatican to face historical sex abuse charges

The statement added that Pell’s travel plans were dependent on “approval by his doctors”.

In a later statement Pell took aim at the police for leaking information to the media, as the Vatican revealed he will no longer appear at public events, including a mass on Thursday.  

“These matters have been under investigation now for two years,” Pell said at a press conference. 

“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.”

Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said there are multiple complainants against Pell, but gave no other details on the allegations against the cardinal.  

Police confirmed last year that they were investigating complaints related to Pell regarding alleged offences in Ballarat in the 1970s. Pell has strenuously denied involvement in claims previously levelled at him, including over his alleged role in covering up paedophile clergy in the Catholic church, HuffPost Australia reported. 

The Associated Press said, for years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.

More recently Pell became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview the cardinal. It is unclear what allegations the charges announced Thursday relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when Pell was a senior priest in Melbourne.

Patton told reporters in Melbourne that none of the allegations against Pell had been tested in any court, adding: “Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.”

He added: “Preserving the integrity of that process is essential to us all and so for Victoria Police, it is important that it is allowed to go through unhindered and allowed to see natural justice is afforded to all the parties involved, including Cardinal Pell and the complainants in this matter.

“Because of that, I am not in a position to take any questions here this morning and I am moving forward, Victoria Police won’t be making any further comments in respect of this matter.”

The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised “zero tolerance” policy about sex abuse.

VINCENZO PINTO via Getty Images
Pell, left, is greeted by Pope Francis in November 2016 at the Vatican 

The charges will also further complicate Francis’ financial reform efforts at the Vatican, which were already strained by Pell’s repeated clashes with the Italian-dominated bureaucracy. Just last week, one of Pell’s top allies, the Vatican’s auditor general, resigned without explanation two years into a five-year term, immediately raising questions about whether the reform effort was doomed.

The Vatican made no immediate comment other than to announce Pell would make a statement in Rome on Thursday. 

Pell’s 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 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - the nation’s highest form of inquiry - has found shocking levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.

Last year, Pell acknowledged during his testimony to the commission that the Catholic Church had made “enormous mistakes” in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests over centuries. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse.

David Gray / Reuters
Pell is seen on screen via video link from Rome as he testifies at Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney, Australia, March 2016 - the Cardinal refused to travel to Australia to give evidence in person

Pell admitted he was “very strongly inclined to accept the denial” of priests who disputed allegations of abuse made against them, and said he did not remember if any children came to him personally with complaints.

“I don’t remember any such thing happening and therefore I don’t believe it did but my memory is sometimes fallible,” he said in 2016.

Last year Pell controversially gave video evidence from Rome instead of appearing in-person in Australia for the Royal Commission, arguing he was too ill to travel. He had declined to travel to Australian three times.

Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican.

The Blue Knot Foundation, an Australian support group for adult survivors of childhood abuse, said the decision to charge Pell sent a powerful message to both abuse survivors and society as a whole.

“It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications, or standing,” the group’s head of research, Pam Stavropoulos, said in a statement.

The charges put the pope in a thorny position. In 2014, Francis 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.

Reuters Staff / Reuters
Victoria state police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton speaks during a press conference in Melbourne, Australia, on June 29

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 pedophile. The pope was later caught on videotape labeling the parishioners who opposed the nomination of being “leftists” and “stupid”.

When Francis was asked last year about the accusations against Pell, he said he wanted to wait for Australian justice to take its course before judging. “It’s true, there is a doubt,” he told reporters en route home from Poland, the Associated Press reported. 

“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,” he said.

Francis appointed 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.

It remains to be seen how the pope will respond to Thursday’s developments, and it was not clear if Francis would keep Pell on as prefect. Technically, the towering former rugby player already submitted his resignation to Francis when he turned 75 last year, but the pope kept him on.

Mick Tsikas / Reuters
Pell looks on as Pope Benedict acknowledges the crowd of World Youth Day pilgrims in Sydney in July 2008

Given Francis’ credibility is on the line, keeping Pell on as prefect while facing charges would reflect poorly on the pope, given he remains one of Francis’ top advisers.

At the same time, the Vatican has a history of shielding its own: When Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace in 2002 over his cover-up of abuse in Boston, victims expressed outrage that St. John Paul II gave him a plum position as archpriest of a Rome basilica.

The transfer spared Law what would likely have been years of litigation and testimony in US courts as victims sued the archdioceses for their abuse, though Law himself was never criminally charged with wrongdoing.

In the 1980s, the Vatican refused to cooperate with Italian investigators when one of its officials, Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, was indicted over a banking scandal. The Vatican successfully cited his diplomatic immunity.