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Top Cardinal charged with multiple counts of sexual assault

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell

Pope Francis' financial adviser is being charged in Australia with multiple counts of historical sexual assault, in a stunning move certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.

George Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.

A Vatican spokesman has said the Pope has given Cardinal Pell a "leave of absence" to defend himself.

The senior Cardinal said he is looking forward to his day in court to challenge the accusations.

"I am innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me," he said in Rome today.

Victoria state police deputy commissioner Shane Patton said police had summonsed Cardinal Pell, 76, to Australia to face multiple charges of "historical sexual assault offences".

Mr Patton said there were multiple complainants against the cardinal, but gave no other details of the allegations against him.

Cardinal Pell, who has been ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18, has repeatedly denied abuse claims against him.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said Cardinal Pell would return to Australia as soon as possible to fight the charges.

The archdiocese statement released on his behalf said he "again strenuously denied all allegations" against him and he "is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously".

The cardinal is planning to make a further statement in Rome later.

"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," Mr Patton said in Melbourne.

"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 on sex abuse.

For years, Cardinal Pell has faced claims that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and later, Sydney.

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

Last year, Cardinal Pell acknowledged during his evidence to the commission that the church had made "enormous mistakes" in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests.

He conceded that he too had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse and vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian home town of Ballarat.

But more recently, Cardinal Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview him.

It is unclear what allegations the charges announced on Thursday relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Cardinal Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when he was a senior priest in Melbourne.

Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican, which leaves two likely outcomes: either Cardinal Pell volunteers to return to Australia to fight the charges or the Vatican could tell him to do so, said Donald Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University.

"I would think that the Pope would be very concerned to think that one of his cardinals, and someone who holds a high position within the Vatican government structure, is being wanted on criminal charges in Australia," Mr Rothwell said in a recent interview.

"So if the Pope was to say, 'Well look, Cardinal Pell, I'd like you to return to Australia and mount a defence', I'm sure Cardinal Pell would probably follow that instruction.

"In the case of someone like Cardinal Pell, the sway that the Pope and the church has over him is much greater than the ordinary citizen."

The charges put Pope Francis in a thorny position.

In 2014 he 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.

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 paedophile.

The Pope was later caught on video labelling the parishioners who opposed the nomination of being "leftists" and "stupid".

When asked last year about the accusations against Cardinal Pell, Francis said he wanted to wait for Australian justice to take its course before judging.

"It's true, there is a doubt," he told reporters on his way home from Poland.

"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."

Francis appointed Cardinal 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.

The leading support group for victims of sexual abuse by priests called on the Pope to speak out about the charges against Cardinal Pell.

US-based survivors' network Snap noted that Francis had promised to work to "end the scourge of abuse by his clergy".

The group called on anyone with additional information about the Cardinal Pell case to come forward.

Press Association