Child Sex-Abuse Charges Against the Pope’s Right-Hand Man Cast a Shadow Over Francis

Cardinal George Pell, the third-highest-ranking Vatican official, is charged with child sex abuse in Australia for alleged crimes more than 40 years ago.

Remo Casilli/Reuters

ROME—The Catholic Church’s lurid child abuse scandals have just hit home at the Vatican.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, the head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and the third highest ranking member of the church’s hierarchy, has been criminally charged with “multiple” acts of sexual violence against minors in Australia.

He is expected in court in Melbourne, Australia, on July 18 to face charges.

Pell, 76, told reporters during a briefing Thursday morning in Rome that he had spoken to Pope Francis and would “step aside” to “clear my name.”

Although this scandal has been building for some time, as reported last year in The Daily Beast, the charges were announced early morning Thursday in Australia, which prompted the Vatican to scramble a last-minute press briefing with Pell in Rome in an astonishing show of transparency.

“Cardinal Pell has been charged on summons and he is required to appear at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 this year for a filing hearing,” according to Victoria police officials heading the investigation.

“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offenses and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges.”

A clearly exhausted Pell, flanked by Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, read a brief statement in which he defended himself. Burke introduced Pell by saying that the Vatican had been told of the charges “with regret” but expressing “respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised.”

“At the same time,” said Burke, “it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors; has cooperated in the past with Australian authorities (for example, in his depositions before the royal commission); has supported the pontifical commission for the protection of minors; and finally, as a diocesan bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”

“Having become aware of the charges,” Burke said, reading from the official Vatican statement on the matter, “Cardinal Pell, acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognising 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,” said Burke. “The Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration, and in particular, for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the council of cardinals.”

He then turned the floor to Pell, who appeared defiant despite his age and fatigue.

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“There has been relentless character assassination for months,” Pell said, reading from a statement. “I am looking forward finally to having my day in court, I am innocent of these charges, they are false. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

“I’ve kept Pope Francis the Holy Father regularly informed during these long months and have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week most recently a day or so ago,” Pell said. “All along I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer an opportunity to clear my name and return back to work.”

Whether Pell is allowed to return to Rome is another matter. Even if he is cleared of charges, the scandal is the biggest yet to rock the Catholic Church under Pope Francis who has been accused of not doing enough to fight its darkest secret.

Pell will step aside for the moment as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy, but many question whether Francis would be wise to keep him under his wing.

The Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, issued a statement ahead of Pell’s announcement calling for Francis to act wisely. “We await Pope Francis’ response to this development. As the head of the Catholic Church, he has promised to work to end the scourge of abuse by his clergy. We expect him to give proof of this by sending Cardinal Pell home immediately to face these charges.”

While Australian police did not specifically name the incidents or victims, it is likely related to testimony Pell gave last year in Rome via video link to the Australian Royal Commission that was investigating rampant abuse in the Australian Catholic Church and Pell’s knowledge thereof.  

Pell was too unwell to travel to Australia at the time prompting speculation that he was concerned he might be charged there. In Rome he enjoys diplomatic immunity under the Vatican. In Australia, he would not have such protection.

“The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those,” Pell testified at the time. “The church has, in many places, certainly in Australia, mucked things up, has let people down… but I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”

Pell was not facing direct accusations of his own misbehavior at the time, but allegations that he also fondled young boys during his time climbing the ranks of the Australian Church have dogged him for decades.

According to Broken Rites, the primary Australian website on clerical sex abuse, which logs complaints, when Pell was training to become a priest he  “put his hand down the inside of [a young man’s] pants and got ‘a good handful’ of his penis and testicles.” That act apparently took place at a swimming pool to which Pell liked to take young parishioners.

Pell said he is now working with his team of defense lawyers and doctors to determine precisely when and how he can return to Australia to face his accusers.