SYDNEY — Police in Australia have on Thursday charged Cardinal George Pell, one of the Vatican’s most senior figures, with multiple “historical sexual assault offences.”
“Cardinal Pell has been charged on summons and he is required to appear at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on the 18th of July this year for a filing hearing,” Victoria’s Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters.
The charges were served on Pell’s legal representatives in Melbourne on Thursday, Patton said, adding Pell was facing “multiple charges… and multiple complainants.”
Pell, who heads the Vatican’s finance department, has repeatedly denied the allegations that date back to his time as a priest in his home town of Ballarat in the 1970s.
Pell, 76, later became Archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney.
Police said the process and procedures followed in charging Pell were the same as those applied to a whole range of historical sex offences in the past as “common and standard practice.”
“Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation,” Patton said.
Last month, Victorian prosecutors gave police the advice that Pell could be charged after investigating evidence gathered from many interviews.
“However, ultimately, the choice to charge Cardinal Pell was one made by Victoria Police,” Patton said.
“It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have obviously been tested in any court yet,” Patton said, adding Pell “has a right to due process” and it was important for the process to run its natural course.
It is unclear exactly what allegations Pell has been charged with.
Complaints were previously made to police relating to alleged sexual assaults in Ballarat between 1976 and 1980 when he was a priest there and in East Melbourne between 1996 and 2001 when he was Archbishop.
Last October, three officers flew to Rome to conduct a voluntary interview with Pell, who strongly denied the allegations saying they were “untrue and completely wrong.”
Pell had earlier been accused of mishandling cases of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Later he allegedly faced direct accusations of abuse himself.
The allegations against him were repeated in a book published in May, which Cardinal Pell’s office in Rome has labelled “an exercise in character assassination.”
Last year, an Australian Royal Commission investigated child sexual abuse scandal rampant among Christian churches and schools, but is yet to hand down findings about how the leaders, including Pell, handled such allegations.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said last month that Pell was the victim of relentless character attacks, instead of being regarded innocent until proven guilty of abuse allegations.
“Justice must be left to run its course. Everyone supports just investigation of complaints but the relentless character attacks on Cardinal Pell, by some, stand the principle of innocent-until-proven- guilty on its head,” Fisher said in a statement.
“What is clear, however, is that Cardinal Pell has co-operated in every way with multiple police, parliamentary and royal commission investigations.”