ROME — Pope Francis' top financial adviser Cardinal George Pell was charged Thursday with multiple sex crimes — becoming the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged with abuse.
The 76-year-old faces "multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences" from multiple complainants, said police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a country priest in the 1970s.
Cardinal Pell, the Vatican's de facto treasury minister, told reporters he had been granted leave of absence to face the allegations.
"I am looking forward finally to having my day in court," he said. "I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
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.
Police gave no details of the allegations, which Pell will answer at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
"These matters have been under investigation now for nearly two years," Pell said. "There have been leaks to the media and relentless character assassination.
"I have been consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return to my work in Rome."
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, who appeared alongside Pell at a news conference Thursday, said the pontiff "appreciated Cardinal Pell's honesty" and was grateful for the aide's "energy and dedication" in carrying out Vatican reforms.
"The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system which will have to decide the merits of the allegations received," Burke said.
Pell previously faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse while he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney. His actions as archbishop came under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.
Australia's years-long 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 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.
Pell acknowledged during his testimony to the commission that the Catholic Church had made "enormous mistakes" in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.
His evidence to that inquiry was given via video link after a doctor ruled Pell was not well enough to attend in person.
However, Pell said Thursday he was determined to travel from Rome to Australia to face the allegations against him.
"News of these charges strengthens my resolve," he said. "I have spoken to my lawyers about when I need to return home and to my doctors about how best to do this."
The Blue Knot Foundation, an Australian support group for adult survivors of childhood abuse, said the decision to charge Pell sent a powerful message to both abuse survivors and society as a whole.
"It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications, or standing," the group's head of research, Pam Stavropoulos, said in a statement.
Andrew Collins, a survivor of church abuse in Ballarat, told Australia’s Channel 7 News: “I am delighted to see there is justice for everybody.”
Pope Francis said last year that Pell should not undergo trial by media, adding: "It's in the hands of the justice system and one cannot judge before the justice system ... After the justice system speaks, I will speak."
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Washington D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, said Pell’s position as a reformer and a trusted aide of Pope Francis may have left him more exposed to allegations.
“The financial reforms that Cardinal Pell has tried to put in place have jeopardized the position of those who might be affected - financially, legally, or both - by the success of those reforms, and who therefore have tried to find many ways to impede the cardinal's work; this has been obvious from the beginning of the reform effort,” Weigel said.
“False allegations can be a powerful tool in such efforts to impede reform; no one should be surprised if such tactics are used by unscrupulous people.”
Alastair Jamieson reported from London.