“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 offenses, whenever we investigate them,” Commissioner Patton added. “Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else.”
Cardinal Pell, the Vatican’s de facto finance chief, had been accused in hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of mishandling misconduct cases against clergy members while he served as the leader of the Archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney. Then allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused minors himself beginning early in his priesthood and continuing until he became archbishop of Melbourne. He has repeatedly denied the accusations.
“I’d just like to restate my innocence,” the cardinal, 76, said in Rome last month after the police in Australia confirmed that they were considering charges against him. “I stand by everything I’ve said at the Royal Commission and in other places.”
In a statement Thursday morning, the Archdiocese of Sydney said that the cardinal had been informed of the charges and that “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,” the statement said, adding, “He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.”
In recent decades, more than 50 Roman Catholic bishops worldwide have been accused of sexually abusing children, according to BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group in Massachusetts that documents sexual abuse in the church. Few, however, have faced criminal charges.
It is rare for a cardinal, a prince of the church, to be accused of sexual abuse, though one of the most notorious cases involved Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna, who resigned in 1995 over accusations that were deemed credible by his successor.
After Francis became pope in 2013, he brought Cardinal Pell to the Vatican to oversee changes to a mismanaged and antiquated financial system. Francis also appointed the cardinal, who has a reputation as a theological conservative, to a nine-member advisory council group.
Francis rebuffed calls to remove Cardinal Pell after the cardinal faced criticism over the way the church responded to abuse cases and after the cardinal came under scrutiny himself, saying he was awaiting the commission’s conclusions.
Last year, detectives from the state of Victoria flew to Rome to interview Cardinal Pell over sexual abuse accusations, the police said.
The detectives were part of a task force charged with investigating allegations of abuse that arose from a parliamentary inquiry in Victoria into the abuse of children, as well as the Royal Commission’s hearings.
Vivian Waller, a lawyer who has represented abuse victims, said her firm had been approached by a small number of people who had made allegations involving Cardinal Pell. “Either those people have already gone to police, or we’ve referred them to police,” Ms. Waller said.
Cardinal Pell testified via video from a Rome hotel in 2016 to the commission about the church’s handling of the sexual abuse cases. “I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” he said, calling the abuses a “catastrophe” for the church.
News reports that the Australian police were weighing abuse charges against the cardinal came on May 17, days after the release of a book, “Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell,” by Louise Milligan.
Ms. Milligan, a reporter for Australia’s ABC network, spent more than two years covering the Royal Commission.
In a statement, the cardinal’s office called the book “an exercise in character assassination,” the news media reported.
Ms. Milligan said that she had interviewed the cardinal’s accusers for more than a year and that the accusations covered several decades. Some episodes were said to have occurred at a pool in Ballarat, a city in Victoria where the cardinal was born and where he returned after being ordained as a priest in Rome.