Vatican rift seen as Pope's spokesman defends Cardinal George Pell on sex abuse inaction charges

Cardinal George Pell gestures as he talks during a news conference at the Vatican in this December 2014 file photo.Reuters

A rift appeared to have broken out in the Vatican on Monday with the spokesman of the Holy See Father Federico Lombardi coming out strongly in defence of Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican's finance chief, against accusation made by a member of Pope Francis' commission on sexual abuse that the cardinal had little regard for child victims of paedophile priests.

Peter Saunders, one of 17 members of the commission advising the Pope on how to eradicate sex abuse in the Church, ignited the firestorm on Sunday when he accused Pell of "making a mockery of the papal commission (into child abuse), of the pope himself, but most of all of the victims and the survivors."

Speaking on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes Australia programme, Saunders said Pell "has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic I would go as far as to say, this lack of care."

Saunders, a Briton who was himself admittedly a victim of abuse, said Pell should be "moved aside" and sent back to Australia to address a separate Australian abuse inquiry.

Saunders has threatened to quit the commission if the Vatican did not move quickly to hold accountable bishops suspected of covering up sexual abuse by priests under their supervision.

Pell wasted no time in responding to Saunders' allegations, saying they were "false, misleading and outrageous."

In a statement, Pell said contrary to Saunders' claims, he had always taken a strong stand against child abuse. He particularly denied allegations that he moved priests accused of abuse between parishes or offered one victim inducements to drop a complaint.

"From his earliest actions as an archbishop, Cardinal Pell has taken a strong stand against child sexual abuse and put in place processes to enable complaints to be brought forward and independently investigated," the cardinal's spokesman said.

"In light of all of the available material, including evidence from the cardinal under oath, there is no excuse for broadcasting incorrect and prejudicial material," the spokesman said.

Lombardi firmly sided with Pell, saying the Australian prelate's comment's should be "considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention."

Moreover, Lombardi said Pell has "always responded carefully and thoroughly to the accusations and questions posed by the competent Australian authorities."

Lombardi said Saunders' statement was "evidently given in an entirely personal way and not on behalf of the Commission, which is not competent to investigate or to pronounce specific judgments on individual cases."

The comments by Saunders, one of the most outspoken members of the commission, underscored strains within the Roman Catholic Church on how to deal with the sexual abuse crisis that has plagued it for nearly two decades.

Aside from being the prefect of the newly formed Secretariat for the Economy which is overseeing Vatican finances, Pell is a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis and a former archbishop of the Sydney and Melbourne archdioceses.

Pell is not new to criticisms. He plays a crucial role in Pope Francis' plans to reform the Vatican, whose bank has been used for laundering money in the past years.

When he arrived last year with his colleague Danny Casey, accusations flew that an "Australian Mafia" had taken over Vatican's finances. There were fears that the cardinal would control Vatican's future after he revealed plans of creating a Vatican Asset Management unit.