One of the most senior officials in the Vatican took a leave of absence and pledged to defend his name after being charged with multiple historical sex crimes in Australia.
Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis’ most trusted advisors and head of the Holy See’s finance department, is the highest ranking official in the Catholic Church to face abuse charges.
At a media conference on June 29, Pell said he would take leave to defend himself and intended to return to his senior post once the court case was completed.
Pell, 76, is facing “multiple charges of historic sexual offenses,’ said police in the Australian state of Victoria. A court suppression order prevents the media from discussing any more details of the charges.
“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court,” a solemn Pell told a packed Vatican media conference.
Pell had been accused in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while serving as bishop of the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. Later, it emerged he too was accused of sexually abusing boys as a priest earlier in his life.
He said matters had been under investigation for nearly two years, and that he had been subjected to “relentless character assassination.”
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges,” Pell said. “They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
The pope has adopted a “zero tolerance” approach to clerical abuse. The Vatican said in a statement on June 29 that the pope had “learned with regret” about the charges filed against Pell.
The statement from Francis said he “appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years of work,” and was grateful for his “energetic dedication to the reforms” of the Vatican administration.
Francis brought Pell to Rome in 2014 to help clean up the scandal-plagued Vatican finances.
Testifying before the Australian commission investigating the church’s response to abuse last year, Pell conceded the church had made grave errors in its handling of abuse.
“The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the church in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has made — let people down. I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” he said.
Overall, Pell said such failures were personal rather than institutional mistakes.
Pell was ordained a priest in Ballarat in 1966.