Cardinal George Pell – a key papal advisor and the most senior figure in the Australian Catholic Church – has been charged over historic allegations of child sex abuse.
Pell, 76 has taken leave following the charges being laid.
Australian police said there were multiple complainants making many allegations against the cardinal.
Pell is the most senior Vatican official to have faced charges of sexual abuse. At a Vatican press conference Thursday morning, he strongly denied the accusations and plans to clear his name from the charges. 'I am 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.
Pell is the third-highest ranking cleric in the Vatican, and an advisor to Pope Francis. He is required to face Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18. The specifics of the charges have not been revealed – though police confirmed last year that the prelate was under investigation for historic offences in the state of Victoria in the 1970s.
In a statement the Vatican said: 'The Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed in Australia against Card. George Pell for decades-old actions that have been attributed to him.
'Having become aware of the charges, Cardinal Pell, acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognizing the importance of his participation to ensure that the process is carried out fairly, and to foster the search for truth.
'The Holy Father, having been informed by Cardinal Pell, has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself.
'The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised.'
Pell has recently faced criticism for his handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Australian Catholic church, after an independent inquiry uncovered unprecedented levels of child abuse. Pell said that the Church had made 'catastrophic choices' in its dealing with the scandal, and admitted he could have done more to investigate claims of abuse.