ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Vatican official to ever face sex abuse charges, has been given a leave of absence by Pope Francis to defend himself in Australian court.
News broke Wednesday that the prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy has been accused of "historic sexual offences." During a press conference at the Holy See Press Office Thursday, Cdl. Pell categorically denied the claims as false. "These matters have been under investigation now for two years," said Cdl. Pell. "I'm looking forward, finally, to having my day in court. I'm innocent of these charges; they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
Greg Burke, director of the Holy See Press Office, announced at the news briefing that the Holy Father has given Cdl. Pell a leave of absence to attend court proceedings in Melbourne where the charges originated. "The Holy Father, having been informed by Cdl. Pell" of what he called decades-old actions attributed to him, "has granted the cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself," confirmed Burke.
Speaking of a conversation he'd had with Pope Francis earlier in the week, Cdl. Pell related, "We talked about my need to take leave to clear my name. So I am very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia."
The cardinal iterated his intention of returning to his duties in Rome after his name is cleared. "All along I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations," said the cardinal. "News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here back to Rome to work."
Australia established a commission in 2013 to investigate clerical sex abuse in the country. According to data released in February by the "Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse," the Catholic Church in Australia has shelled out the U.S. equivalent of $212 million to 2,854 claimants for alleged sex abuse occuring from 1980–2015. The report reveals, "The average time between the first alleged incident date and the date the claim was received was 33 years." Most of the alleged abuse, therefore, took place before 1982.
During that investigation, Cd. Pell, who had been archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney when much of the abuse had allegedly occurred, was originally accused of covering up instances of clerical sex abuse. He was subsequently cleared of these allegations. Last October, however, men came forward to accuse the cardinal of personally abusing them as children. It's these latter claims with which the cardinal was charged on Wednesday by the Victoria Police.
Shane Patton, deputy commissioner of Victorian Police, announced Wednesday at a press conference in Melbourne that the cardinal would have to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 for a hearing related to multiple charges. "Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences, and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges," said Patton.
The officer emphasized, however, that these charges were not yet proven in court. "It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cdl. Pell have obviously been tested in any court yet," affirmed Patton.