Top Vatican cardinal charged with multiple sexual assault offences
Australian police charged a top Vatican cardinal on Thursday with multiple counts of "historical" sexual assault offences, a stunning decision certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.
Cardinal George Pell, 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.
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said police have summonsed Pell to appear in an Australian court to face multiple charges of "historical sexual assault offences," meaning offences that generally occurred some time ago. Patton said there are multiple complainants against Pell, but gave no other details on the allegations against the cardinal. Pell was ordered to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney. But more recently, Pell himself 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.
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.
"He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously," the statement said.
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."
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. 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. It wasn't clear if he would participate in a Mass being celebrated later by Francis and other cardinals to mark a major Catholic feast day.
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 seven per cent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.