Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, attending a press conference in Vatican. March 31, 2015. Photograph: (AFP)
Cardinal Pell is the Vatican's third-ranking official, and the most senior in Australia
Hours after becoming the highest-profile Catholic cleric to be accused of sexually abusing children, Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell said Thursday he had been a victim of "relentless character assassination" and said he would take leave from the Vatican to clear his name.
The Vatican chief said he would return to Australia and return to work after after proving himself innocent.
In a strongly supportive statement, the Vatican said Pell's staff would continue his work in his absence and noted Francis's respect for the Australian's "honesty" and "energetic dedication" to his work on Church financial reform.
"The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised," the statement said.
"At the same time, it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors; has cooperated in the past with Australian authorities ... has supported the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and finally, as a diocesan bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse."
Pell, unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, said he had been in close contact with Pope Francis, who in turn came out strongly in his defence and has asked him to resign from his senior Church post.
"I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I am innocent of these charges," the 76-year-old said at a press conference. "They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell was Thursday charged with multiple child sex offences in Australia, police said.
"There are multiple complainants relating to those charges," said Victoria state police deputy commissioner Shane Patton to a Melbourne conference, reports Reuters. Cardinal Pell was charged by summons to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18, he said.
Pell was interviewed in Rome by Australian police last October over the allegations which he strongly denies.
Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the Catholic Church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.
"Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences," Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters.
Pell told the Australian inquiry last year the Church made "catastrophic" choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and relying too heavily on the counsel of priests to solve the problem, Reuters reports.
Francis's attempts to root out sexual abuse in the Church have hit stumbling blocks. Marie Collins, the top non-clerical member of a papal commission on abuse, resigned in frustration earlier this year, citing "shameful" resistance to change within the Vatican.
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that US bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
Thousands of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests have come to light around the world in recent years as investigations have encouraged long-silent victims to finally go public with their complaints.
"I would suspect (the charges against Pell) are going to be stunning to the Vatican and to the pope himself," said Thomas P Doyle, the U.S. priest whose report on molestation in the church led to the discovery of cover-up practices in Boston.
"My suspicion is that the pope will do something but I don't know what because there's no scenario for this," Doyle said by telephone from his home in Virginia.
Under previous popes, the Vatican, a sovereign state in the middle of Rome, sheltered officials wanted by other countries.
In the early 1980s, the Vatican refused to hand over to Italy Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, an American who was then head of the Vatican bank and wanted for questioning about the fraudulent bankruptcy of a private Italian bank.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston moved to Rome after a sexual abuse scandal erupted in his diocese in 2001 and has been living in the Italian capital since.
Victims groups were outraged when Law was given a plum job as chief priest at a Rome basilica. Victim support groups have repeatedly attacked the Vatican for its response to the crisis, saying successive popes have failed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
"It would be naive for us to assume that people will be only relieved," said Neil Woodger, vice president of the In Good Faith Foundation, which says it represents 460 victims of Catholic church abuse in Australia.
"They're going to be experiencing a bit of distress as well," he said. "It is a result that I think points to justice working and that justice is there for everybody."