Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic and the third-ranking official in the Vatican, has been charged with multiple sexual offences by police.
The charges were served on Pell’s legal representatives in Melbourne on Thursday and they have been lodged also at Melbourne magistrates court. He will appear at the court on 18 July.
“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges … and there are multiple complainants,” Victoria police’s deputy commissioner Shane Patton said. The charges were “historical sexual assault offences”.
Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal.
Pell has consistently denied all allegations against him. After the possibility of his being charged was raised publicly, Pell told reporters: “I’d just like to restate my innocence.”
“I stand by everything I’ve said at the royal commission [on child sexual abuse] and in other places. We have to respect due process, wait until it’s concluded and obviously I’ll continue to cooperate fully.”
Asked if he would be prepared to go to Australia, he said: “I will continue to cooperate fully.”
It is so far unclear just which allegations Cardinal Pell has been charged with.
Detectives from Victoria police’s Sano taskforce, established to investigate allegations that emerged during a parliamentary inquiry in Victoria and the later royal commission, interviewed Pell in Rome in October last year about allegations against him.
Last year, citing ill health, Pell declined to return to Australia to give evidence to the royal commission on child sexual abuse in person last year and instead gave evidence by videolink from Rome.
The royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, formed in 2013, is due to deliver its final report by 15 December.
In February this year the Australian Senate called on the cardinal to return home “to assist the Victorian police and office of public prosecutions with their investigation into these matters”.
Pell dismissed the parliamentary resolution as “an interference on the part of the Senate in the due process of the Victoria police investigation.”
Pell is a former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne. Since 2014 Pell has been prefect of the secretariat for the economy, the Vatican’s treasurer.
When Pope Francis was asked about allegations against Pell last year, he told reporters: “It’s true, there is a doubt. We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgment a judgment of gossip because that won’t help. Once justice has spoken, I will speak.”
Patton told the press conference: “During the course of the investigation in relation to Cardinal Pell, there has been a lot of reporting in the media and speculation about the process that has been involved in the investigation and also the charging.
“For clarity, 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 fact that he has been charged on summons, we have used advice from the office of public prosecutions and also we have engaged with his legal representatives is common and standard practice. There has been no change in any procedures whatsoever. Advice was received and sought from the office of public prosecutions, however ultimately, the choice to charge Cardinal Pell was one that was made by Victoria Police.
“Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore, it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.”
Patton said as the matter was now due before the court, police would be making no further comment.