Australian cardinal George Pell. (Riccardo De Luca, AP)
Sydney – Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell arrived back in Australia on Monday ahead of a court appearance later this month over historical sex abuse charges.The 76-year-old, a top advisor to Pope Francis, touched down in Sydney and was met by security before being whisked away in a waiting car.
He has been ordered to face a Melbourne court on July 26 for a preliminary hearing on multiple sexual assault charges related to offences allegedly committed decades ago, when he was a senior cleric in Australia.
The former Sydney and Melbourne archbishop has always maintained his innocence and strenuously denies the allegations. Details of the charges have not been made public although police said they involved “multiple complainants”.
‘I am innocent’
A spokesperson for Pell said in a statement he would be making no comment, but was grateful for “the numerous messages of support he continues to receive”.
“When he was told of the charges by Victoria Police Cardinal Pell said in Rome he totally rejected the allegations, was completely innocent of the charges and would return to Australia to vigorously defend himself and clear his name,” said the statement.
“His return today then should not be a surprise.”
Pell, unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, said from Rome after being charged late last month that he was “looking forward finally to having my day in court”.
“I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said at the time.
Pell has been granted a leave of absence by the Pope, who made clear the cardinal would not be forced to resign his post as head of the Vatican’s powerful economic ministry.
The charges coincided with the final stages of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
Pell appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link from Rome. In one hearing, he admitted that he “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
There are multiple alleged victims but police have released no further details of the accusations.
The cardinal appeared before reporters at the Vatican press office after the claims emerged, forcefully denying allegations and denouncing what he described as a “relentless character assassination” in the media.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said.