A senior Vatican cardinal charged in Australia with multiple historical sexual offences has denied the accusations and denounced what he called a “relentless character assassination” in the media.
The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised “zero tolerance” policy about sex abuse.
The charges also complicate Francis’s financial reform efforts at the Vatican, which were already strained by Pell’s repeated clashes with the Italian-dominated bureaucracy.
Last week, one of Pell’s top allies, the Vatican’s auditor general, resigned without explanation two years into a five-year term, raising questions about whether the reform effort was doomed.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pope Francis had learned with “regret” of the charges and had granted Pell a leave of absence to defend himself. He said the Vatican’s financial reforms would continue in his absence.
Pell’s actions as archbishop have come under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the nation’s highest form of inquiry – has found shocking levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7% of Catholic priests had been accused of sexually abusing children over the several decades.
Last year, Pell acknowledged during evidence to the commission that the Catholic Church had made “enormous mistakes” in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests over centuries.
He conceded that he had erred by often believing priests over those who alleged abuse, and he vowed to help end a rash of suicides among church abuse victims in his home town of Ballarat.
Francis appointed Pell in 2014 to a five-year term to head the Vatican’s new economy secretariat, giving him broad rein to control all economic, administrative, personnel and procurement functions of the Holy See. The mandate has since been restricted to performing more of an oversight role.