One of Pope Francis’ top advisors, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged with sexual assault and has taken an immediate leave of absence from the Vatican, Australian police said Thursday.
Pell, who previously served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, has faced rumors of sexual misconduct in the Australian media for the last two years – claims he has adamantly denied and called “relentless character assassination.”
“All along, I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations” Pell said Thursday. “News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name. I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court.”
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false,” he continued. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Though it is unclear what the specifics of the accusations are, Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton stated Thursday that Pell faces multiple counts of “historical sexual assault offenses,” or offenses that took place some time ago. Patton also noted that there were multiple complainants in the case, which will be revealed in the Melbourne Magistrate’s court on July 18th.
According to ABC 7, two men, now in their 40s, have previously come forward to say that Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when Pell was then a senior priest in Melbourne. It is not confirmed whether or not these accusations are linked to the current charges being held against Pell.
Though the Catholic church has been plagued with many sexual abuse scandals in recent years, Thursday’s announcement may have even bigger implications, as Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged. His close relationship with Pope Francis also calls into question the Pope’s promised “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual misconduct within the church, which has also been met with skepticism.
When asked about the allegations against Pell last year, Pope Francis said he would wait to hear the courts’ decisions before making his own judgment.
“One mustn’t judge before justice judges,” he said at the time, according to Vatican Radio.
The Vatican, for its part, issued a statement Thursday praising Pell’s work in combating sexual abuse, seemingly standing by the cardinal.
“The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system, which will have to decide the merits of the questions raised,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement. “At the same time, it’s important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse against minors.”
In the news conference Thursday, Patton told reporters that Pell will be tried as any defendant would be, and would not be given special treatment as a result of his high ranking.
“I want to be perfectly clear – the process and the procedures that have been followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offenses whenever we investigate them,” Patton said. “Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation.”