A cardinal in charge of the Vatican’s finances has been charged with multiple sexual offenses by Australian police, in one of the most significant indictments against a top-ranking leader of the Catholic Church.
Cardinal George Pell faces multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offenses,” the Australian criminal justice system’s term for offenses committed in the past, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton announced at a news conference on Thursday morning in Australia.
That morning, Victoria police notified Pell’s legal representative that he has been charged and must appear in court on July 18, Patton said.
Patton said that Pell was treated no differently than any other defendant because of his high rank in the Vatican — notifying a legal representative and summoning the defendant to court at a later date is the recommendation of Australian prosecutors in a case like his.
In the Vatican, Pell’s job as secretariat of the economy is so crucial that it has been described as the second-most-powerful role in Rome, after only the pope. But for years, he has faced accusations of improper behavior connected with clergy sexual abuse in Australia.
In Ballarat, Pell’s hometown, dozens of children were abused by priests. After the abuse came to light, priests testified under oath that Pell knew about the abuse while it was occurring.
The scale of the abuse in Ballarat was staggering: In one fourth-grade class of 33 boys, 12 committed suicide, the Post reported in 2015. Five priests who worked in the parish were convicted of crimes, including one who was found guilty of abusing more than 50 children.
Two years ago, Peter Saunders, a survivor of sexual abuse on the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke out against Pell, calling him “almost sociopathic” in his lack of concern for the victims of abuse in an interview with Australia’s television program “60 Minutes.”
Saunders asked Pope Francis at the time to remove Pell from his position and take “the strongest action against him.” But Pell publicly refuted Saunders’s allegations, and a Vatican spokesman stood with Pell, saying the cardinal “must be considered reliable.”