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Vatican's Cardinal George Pell becomes highest-level Catholic Church official ever to face historical sexual assault charges

The charges have made him the highest-level Catholic Church official ever

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ROME, Italy - Part of the elite group of cardinals called ‘princes of the church’ Cardinal George Pell, who is a top adviser to Pope Francis has been charged with multiple counts of “historical sexual assault offenses” by the Australian police. 
 
The charges have made him the highest-level Catholic Church official ever to face such charges.
 
As the charges were announced on Thursday morning, rocking the Catholic Church to its core, Cardinal Pell vowed to defend himself in Australia, calling the charges “abhorrent” and “false.”
 
Bringing a worldwide abuse scandal to the heart of the Vatican, police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a country priest in the 1970s, said he faced "multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences" from multiple complainants.
 
While the police neither detailed the charges against Pell nor specified the ages of the alleged victims or the period when the crimes were alleged to have occurred - Cardinal Pell was ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates' Court on July 18.
 
The 76-year-old cardinal, who is Vatican economy minister and has been in charge of reforming church finances, became the highest-ranking Church official to face such accusations and asserted his innocence on Thursday.
 
Calling the case almost two-years of “relentless character assassination,” that had “strengthened his resolve” to clear his name, Cardinal Pell told reporters that he had been in regular contact with Pope Francis, who had granted him leave to return to Australia for his day in court in mid-July.
 
He said he wanted to "clear my name and then return to my work in Rome.”
 
For years now, Cardinal Pell has faced allegations that he failed to properly deal with clergy sex abuse in Australia.
 
Reports noted that since he was unable to travel due to doctor’s orders, he was questioned by a commission investigating the church's response to abuse via video link from Rome. 
 
However, he faced harsh criticism and angered victims at the time for his failure to return to Australia to face the questions in person.
 
Last year, in the remote testimony, Pell conceded, “With the experience of 40 years later, I certainly would agree that I should have done more.”
 
He was also reportedly questioned on why he needed the experience of 40 years to address something that should have been taken as a serious matter at the time and said, “People had different attitudes then."
 
In his comments on Thursday, Pell insisted, “I’m looking forward to finally having my day in court. I'm innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse to me is abhorrent.”
 
Meanwhile, reports quoted Robert Mickens who works with the Catholic publication ‘La Croix International’ and has been covering the Vatican for 25 years as saying that the charges against Pell represent "a major blow" for the church.
 
Mickens reportedly said, "You have to understand that the Vatican language is always going to be more conciliatory. Cardinal Pell said the pope has 'given' him a leave of absence - it's very likely that the pope stood him down.”
 
Further, as the charges were announced on Thursday, the Vatican made it clear that Pell’s leave of absence was effective immediately, and that he would no longer be seen at public Vatican events while his case unfolded in Australia.
 
Pell's departure, even though seeming temporary are set to pose a dilemma for the pontiff, who has vowed zero tolerance for such offences.
 
Last year, Pope Francis said 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."
 
The probe will also add pressure on the Pontiff to make good on promises to root out sexual abuse in the Church and act against those who cover it up.

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