Australian police charged a top Vatican cardinal on Thursday with multiple counts of historical sexual assault offenses, a stunning decision certain to rock the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church.
Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis' chief financial advisor and Australia's most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said police have summoned Pell to appear in an Australian court to face multiple charges of "historic sexual 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.
Pell has repeatedly denied all abuse allegations against him. The Catholic Church in Australia, which issues statements on Pell's behalf, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges.
"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," Patton told reporters 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 about sex abuse.
For years, Pell has faced accusations 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-authorized 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 Australia's Catholic Church, revealing this year that 7% of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the last 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. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has beset church abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.