VATICAN CITY (RNS) One of the most senior officials in the Vatican has taken 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 advisers 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 Thursday (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, using the technical term for offenses committed in the past. A court suppression order prevents the media from discussing any more details of the charges.
Victoria police notified Pell’s legal representative that he has been charged and must appear in court on July 18.
“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 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 Vatican said in a statement Thursday 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.
But Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who resigned in March from a papal panel to protect minors, citing "shameful" resistance within the Vatican, said Pell should never have been allowed to remain in his position in the Holy See.
On her personal website, Collins described Pell's “appalling mishandling of cases of abuse” in Australia.
“He should never have been allowed to hide out in the Vatican to avoid having to face those in his home country who needed answers,” Collins wrote.
Victims’ groups also criticized the pope for not doing enough to hold bishops and priests to account for church abuse scandals that have emerged in Ireland, Germany, the U.S., Australia and other countries in the past 15 years.
The U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests urged the pope to respond publicly and send Pell home as soon as possible.
“As the head of the Catholic Church, he has promised to work to end the scourge of abuse by his clergy,” SNAP spokeswoman Joelle Casteix said in a statement.
“We expect him to give proof of this by sending Cardinal Pell home immediately to face these charges.”
Last year Francis approved tougher measures designed to make bishops more accountable for abusers and to mandate their removal if found to be “negligent.”
Austen Ivereigh, Vatican commentator and papal biographer, said the pope had demonstrated his determination to fight clerical sex abuse both through his “words and actions.”
“Putting in place the structures and the law to ensure both of those things has been slower than many would like and certainly not fast enough to satisfy many victims,” Ivereigh told RNS.
“But even those who, like Marie Collins, have expressed frustration at the pace of change and the resistance to it acknowledge that Francis is wholly sincere and utterly determined on the issue.”
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, a city in Victoria, in 1966. Some of the accusations against him may have occurred at a public pool in Ballarat where he swam with boys from a nearby Catholic church.
An estimated 7 percent of Australia’s Roman Catholic clergy may have abused children between 1950 and 2010, according to evidence entered by the Royal Commission. More than 4,440 Australians claim to have been victims of church abuse between 1980 and 2015, the evidence showed.