George Pell takes leave from Vatican to fight sexual abuse charges in Australia

The cardinal, the third highest-ranking figure in the Vatican, said he was the victim of relentless character assassination

Cardinal George Pell, Australias most senior Catholic and the third highest ranking official in the Vatican, is taking leave from the Holy See to return to Australia to face historical sexual assault charges.

Pell confirmed on Thursday in Rome that he had spoken to Pope Francis and been granted leave. The Vatican in turn responded with a statement supportive of Pell.

There has been relentless character assassination for months … I am looking forward finally to having my day in court, I am innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me, Pell told reporters at a televised press conference.

Ive kept Pope Francis the Holy Father regularly informed during these long months and have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week most recently a day or so ago.

All along I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer an opportunity to clear my name and return back to work.

His decision to stand down came after he was charged with multiple historical sexual assault offences on Thursday in Melbourne. He was ordered to return to Melbourne magistrates court on 18 July.

Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic churchs long-running sexual abuse scandal which has taken place in countries around the world.

The news, which broke in the middle of the night in Rome, represents the biggest crisis of Pope Franciss papacy. The Vatican declined to comment immediately on the news, but inside the Vatican questions were swirling about how Francis would respond to the stunning charges and whether his longstanding support of Pell – despite his ideological differences with the staunchly conservative Australian – would tarnish his own reputation.

The pope has historically been loath to respond to legally unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse against senior clerics. The fact that legal charges have been filed means his support for Pell will now be heavily scrutinised and the case will be seen as a test of whether the pope, who has claimed that the church ought to have zero tolerance for sexual offenders, will be willing to cast out one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican.

The Vatican responded in a statement read by the head of the press office, expressing regret for the news of charges filed in Australia against Cardinal George Pell for decades-old actions that have been attributed to him.

The statement added: Having become aware of the charges, Cardinal Pell, acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognising the importance of his participation to ensure that the process is carried out fairly, and to foster the search for truth. The Holy Father, having been informed by Cardinal Pell, has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself

The Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pells honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration, and in particular, for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals.

The Vatican statement expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised but added: 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 (for example, in his depositions before the Royal Commission); 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.

In Melbourne Victoria polices deputy commissioner Shane Patton said there were multiple complainants. It is not clear which allegations the charges relate to.

Ninety minutes after the charges were announced Pell had confirmed through the Catholic archdiocese he would return to Australia as soon as possible to clear his name. In an earlier statement by Pell, issued at 4.30am Rome time, said: Although it is still in the early hours of the morning in Rome, Cardinal George Pell has been informed of the decision and action of Victoria police. He has again strenuously denied all allegations.

Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements.

He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.

The cardinal is a former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne. Since 2014 he has been prefect of the secretariat for the economy the Vaticans treasurer. He was ordained in Rome in 1966.

When Pope Francis was asked about allegations against Pell last year, he told reporters: Its true, there is a doubt. We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgment a judgment of gossip because that wont help. Once justice has spoken, I will speak.

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