A senior cardinal and top adviser to Pope Francis will return to Australia to face charges of sexual assault. Cardinal George Pell is the third-highest-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church. Pell was charged in his native Australia with multiple counts of sexual assault from years ago.
The charges against Pell were announced in Melbourne by Victoria State Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton. Pell was ordered to appear in court July 26 to face multiple counts of “historical sexual assault offenses”. Patton said there are multiple complainants against Pell, but he gave no other details.
It is unclear what the criminal charges against Pell involve, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when Pell was a senior priest in Melbourne.
In 2014, the Vatican admitted nearly 850 priests have been dismissed and more than 2,500 have been disciplined in a sprawling sexual abuse scandal dating back decades. Cardinal Pell said Pope Francis granted him a leave of absence to return to Australia to defend himself. The 76-year-old Pell — the highest-ranking Vatican official ever implicated in the scandal and has forcefully denied the accusations.
In a statement read to the press, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Vatican respected Australia’s justice system but recalled that the cardinal had “openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable” acts of sexual abuse against minors. He noted Pell’s cooperation with Australia’s Royal Commission investigation of sex abuse and that as a bishop in Australia, he worked to protect children and compensate victims.
Pell’s actions as archbishop came under scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. The Royal Commission revealed that 7 percent of priests were accused of sexually abusing children in the past several decades.
Last year, Pell testified to the commission that the church had made “enormous mistakes” in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. He vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his hometown of Ballarat.
It was unclear if Pell would face a church trial stemming from the accusations. The Vatican has clear guidelines about initiating a canonical investigation if there is a semblance of truth to sex abuse accusations against a cleric. In the case of a cardinal, it would fall to Francis himself to judge. Penalties for a guilty verdict in a church trial include defrocking.