Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers, took a leave of absence as the Vatican’s financial czar on Thursday to face multiple criminal charges in his native Australia that allege he committed sexual assault years ago.
Pell appeared before reporters in the Vatican press office to forcefully deny the accusations, denounce what he called a “relentless character assassination” in the media and announce he would return to Australia to clear his name.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” Pell said.
The Vatican said the leave took effect immediately and that Pell would not participate in any public liturgical event while it was in effect. Pell said he intended to eventually return to Rome to resume his work as prefect of the Vatican’s economy ministry.
Pell, 76, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal, and the developments posed a major new obstacle for Francis as he works to reform the Vatican.
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton announced the charges Thursday, saying police had summonsed Pell to appear in court to face multiple counts of “historical sexual assault offenses,” meaning offenses 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.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Holy See had learned with “regret” of the charges and that the Vatican’s financial reforms would continue in his absence.
In a statement he read to reporters while sitting beside Pell, Burke said the Vatican respected Australia’s justice system but recalled that the cardinal had “openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable” acts of sexual abuse against minors.
He noted that Pell…