In big blow to Pope Francis, Australian police today charged his top adviser Cardinal George Pell, with multiple historical sex crimes.
Pell, 76 years old, is the Vatican’s de facto treasury minister and is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged with sexual abuse.
He faces “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences” from multiple complainants, said police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a country priest in the 1970s.
The police did not specify the charges against Pell nor the ages of the alleged victims nor when the crimes were alleged to have occurred.
The Australian Catholic Church said in a statement that Pell strenuously denied the charges and planned to return to Australia to “clear his name”.
“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously,” the statement said. It also said his doctors would advise on his travel arrangements.
Pell angered victims at a government inquiry into institutional child abuse in Australia last year by saying he was too sick to fly home, testifying instead from Rome.
He was ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18. The cardinal was due to make a statement at the Vatican later on Thursday.
The latest development in the long-running Pell case piled pressure on the pope to make good on promises to sack bishops found guilty of abuse, or of covering it up.
Francis told reporters last year he would wait until Australian justice took its course before taking a position on Pell, and that his financial controller since 2014 should not undergo trial by media.
“It’s in the hands of the justice system and one cannot judge before the justice system,” the pope said at the time. “After the justice system speaks, I will speak.”
Pell told the Australian inquiry last year the Church had 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.
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 U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers 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 have come to light as investigations have encouraged long-silent victims to go public.