A high-ranking Vatican official and close aide to Pope Francis has been charged with “historical sex offenses” in his native Australia.
Victoria Police announced the charges against Cardinal George Pell, 76, on June 30, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
“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,” Deputy Commissioner Shane Patten said at a press conference Thursday. “The charges were today served on Cardinal Pell’s legal representatives in Melbourne and they have been lodged also at the Melbourne Magistrates Court.”
Pell oversees finances for the Vatican.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Details of the Accusations, Related to Multiple Alleged Incidents From the 1970s, Haven’t Been Released
Victoria Police did not release details about the accusations against Cardinal George Pell during the Thursday press conference, according to the Australian Broadcasting Company.
He has been under formal investigation since last July, relating to offenses alleged to have occurred in the 1970s, when he was working as a diocesan priest in Ballarat, a city in Victoria. Three Victoria Police detectives interviewed Pell in Rome last October.
“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offenses and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges,” Deputy Commissioner Shane Patten said at the press conference.
Patten stressed that Pell has not received any special treatment.
“So for clarity, I want to be perfectly clear, the process and procedures that are being followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offenses whenever we investigate them,” Patten told reporters. “The fact that he has been charged on summons, we have used advice from the Office of Public Prosecutions and also we have engaged with his legal representatives is common and standard practice.
“So there has been no change in any procedures whatsoever. Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation,” Patten said.
He said the decision to file charges was made by the Victoria Police after consultation with the Office of Public Prosecutions.
“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,” Patten said. “Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.”
2. Cardinal Pell Has ‘Strenuously Denied’ the Charges, but Will Return to Australia for His July Court Appearance
Cardinal Pell has been informed of the charges and plans to return to Australia for the July 18 hearing, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.
“Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements,” the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said in a statement. “He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously. He has again strenuously denied all allegations.”
Pell is expected to step aside from his role at the Vatican while fighting the charges, the Morning Herald reports.
He has repeatedly denied the accusations made against him, including last month, when he said, “I’d just like to restate my innocence,” when it was revealed that police were considering charges against him, the New York Times reports.
Pell suffers from heart issues and was unable to fly to Australia for a hearing about child sexual abuse in the church last year. It was later learned after that hearing that Pell was himself a target of a police investigation, The Sydney Morning Herald reports. He told the commission the accusations are “totally untrue and completely wrong.”
According to the newspaper, Pell met with the Council of Cardinals in mid-June for a meeting and said he was about to begin work on the 2018 budget.
3. Pell Was First Accused of Sex Offenses in 2002 & Has Been Criticized for His Response to Other Child Sex Abuse Cases
Sexual abuse charges were first publicly made against Cardinal Pell in 2002, when a former alter boy accused Pell of molesting him repeatedly at a church-run camp in the early 1960s, The Australian reports.
A judge found there was not enough evidence to corroborate the allegations, but did not make a finding that the accusations were false, despite claims from Pell that he had been exonerated by the report, according to the newspaper.
“The Southwell report which exonerated Cardinal Pell has been in the public domain since 2002,” the cardinal’s office said in February 2016, when it was revealed police were again examining those accusations. “The Victorian police have taken no steps in all of that time to pursue the false allegations made, however, the cardinal certainly has no objection to them reviewing the materials that led Justice Southwell to exonerate him. The cardinal is certain that the police will quickly reach the conclusion that the allegations are false.”
Pell has long been criticized by victims of child sexual abuse and their supporters for his handling of child sex abuse cases that were brought to light during his time leading the Catholic church in Australia, according to the New York Times.
He has been a witness numerous times before the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and has been questioned about how his response to misconduct cases involving clergy while he was the Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney.
Pell was one of the first church leaders to address the issue, in 1996, but advocates and victims criticized his actions, ABC reports. He created the “Melbourne Response,” which capped victims’ compensation at $50,000 and critics say the response did not provide legal recourse or support to victims.
“I think it’s very important that church money is used efficiently, that the donations are used for the running of the church, and for the helping of the poor, that they’re not wasted,” Pell told the Royal Commission in 2016, in a hearing held in Rome, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
4. He Is the ‘Second-Most Powerful’ Official in the Vatican & Was Considered as a Contender to Become Pope After Both John Paul II & Benedict XVI
Pell is described as the second-most powerful official at the Vatican and is in charge of finances at the headquarters of the Catholic Church, according to the Washington Post.
He was brought to the Vatican in 2013 to be part of Pope Francis’ team and quickly gained his trust, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. He became part of the Council of Cardinals, an informal group of eight advisers with a goal of helping Pope Francis reform the church’s administration.
According to author Gianluigi Nuzzi, who wrote Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’ Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican, Pell “started to comb through the account books [and] shared Francis’ policy for a Church without privileges and on the side of the poor and needy … He had a large personality and authority. He didn’t trust anyone, tending instead to focus on every decision and responsibility himself.”
Pell was then named Prefect of the Economy by Francis in 2014, a new position he referred to as “equivalent to the treasurer,” the newspaper reports.
Pell was been named among contenders to become pope after the death of Pope John Paul II and resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, but expressed disinterest in leading the Catholic church.
In 2002, he said there was “no way” he would succeed Pope John Paul II, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, he had “no ambitions at all” to become the pope. But he was listed among the 18 contenders for the position by oddsmakers, at 40-1, the newspaper reported at the time.
His odds of becoming pope improved in 2013, when he was listed at 20-1 to replace Benedict, The Australian reported at the time.
“George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, has a realistic chance. He’s not one of the favourites, nor even at the top of the second tier. But he has a chance. And if not pope, perhaps secretary of state, the Vatican’s prime minister and foreign minister combined,” the newspaper said.
5. He Has Been a Priest Since 1966, Working in a Diocese Plagued by Child Sex Abuse, Before Serving as the Archbishop of Sydney
Pell, known to hold conservative Catholic views, became a priest in 1966, and worked in his hometown of Ballarat in a diocese that would be plagued by child sex abuse involving the Catholic clergy, the Washington Post reports. Dozens of children were sexually abused by priests in the city, and other priests testified under oath that Pell knew about the abuse while it was occurring.
According to the Post, the abuse led to several suicides. In a fourth-grade class of 33 boys, 12 committed suicide. The accusations led to criminal convictions against five priests who worked in the parish, according one priest found guilty of abusing more than 50 children.
Advocates and victims have long held rallies and made calls for Pope Francis to remove Pell from power because of his alleged role in the child sexual abuse.
Pell became a bishop in 1987 and the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He was then appointed as Archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and became a cardinal a year later.