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'I am looking forward finally to having my day in court': Australian cardinal charged with sex abuse

Pell is the Vatican’s finance chief.

Image: AP/PA Images

CARDINAL GEORGE PELL has said that he would take a leave from the Vatican to return to Australia to fight child sex abuse charges after being given strong backing from Pope Francis, who has not asked him to resign from his senior Church post.

Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief and the highest-profile Catholic cleric to face such charges, said at a press conference at the Vatican that he had been a victim of “relentless character assassination” and vowed to clear his name and return to work in Rome.

“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I am innocent of these charges,” the 76-year-old said. “They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

Pell, unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, said he had been in close contact with Francis in recent days and thanked the head of the Church for granting him leave.

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 (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.”

Police in the Australian state of Victoria announced earlier that Pell had been charged with “historical sexual assault offences”.

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters: “There are multiple complainants relating to those charges.”

Pell was ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.

No details of the charges were given and Patton would not take any questions, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.

A lawyer for two unidentified men who had made abuse claims against Pell said they were “over the moon” about the charges.

“It’s been very difficult for them to stick their neck out,” the lawyer, Ingrid Irwin, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper. “To come out against someone who is second to God, in some people’s minds, has caused all sorts of problems for them.”

The repercussions for the Church could be significant, the editor of the Australian online forum Catholica, Brian Coyne, told AFP.

“This is the most senior person in the church who has ever been charged and the implications are both huge for the future of the Catholic Church in this country and internationally,” Coyne said.

“Pope Francis must be feeling the heat at the moment and some embarrassment having his number-three senior manager facing these sorts of allegations.”

‘Mucked up’

The announcement coincides with the final stages of a long-running national inquiry into responses to child sex abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.

The royal commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.

Australia Cardinal Charged Cardinal George Pell walks onto the stage for the opening mass for World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia back in 2008. Source: Rick Rycroft

Pell has appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link, during which he admitted that he “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.

The Pell charges stem from lengthy investigations by a Victoria Police task force looking into allegations emanating from the royal commission and from a state parliamentary inquiry.

The inquiry released data in February that showed seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but the allegations were never investigated.

Some 4,444 alleged incidents of paedophilia were reported to church authorities and, in some dioceses, more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators, the inquiry heard.

The average age of the victims at the time was 10 for girls and 11 for boys.

Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966 before returning to Australia in 1971 and rose to become the nation’s top Catholic official.

He had been accused of historical sex abuse claims when he was the Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

The cardinal left for the Vatican in 2014 after being hand-picked by Pope Francis to make the church’s finances more transparent.

Pope Francis said last year when asked about allegations against the cardinal that “we must avoid a media verdict, a verdict based on gossip”.

Patton stressed that Pell has been “treated the same as anyone else in this investigation”.

“I want to be perfectly clear, the process and procedures that are being followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offences whenever we investigate them.”

The Pell charges followed the announcement on Wednesday that the Pope had defrocked an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors, reversing an earlier decision to reduce his punishment.

Comments are off as legal proceedings are ongoing.

© AFP 2017

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