Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, took a leave of absence as the Vatican's financial chief Thursday to fight criminal charges in his native Australia that alleged he committed sexual assault years ago.
Mr. Pell forcefully denied the accusations, denounced what he called a "relentless character assassination" in the media, and said he would return to Australia to clear his name.
"I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me," he said in an appearance at the Vatican press office.
Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal, and the developments pose a new and serious obstacle for Francis in his promised "zero tolerance" policy.
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton announced the charges Thursday, saying police had ordered Pell to appear in court July 18 to face multiple counts of "historical sexual assault offenses," meaning offenses that generally occurred some time ago.
There are multiple complainants against Pell, Mr. Patton said, but he gave no other details.
The cardinal has faced allegations for years that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
More recently, however, Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives interviewing him in the Vatican last year.
It is unclear what allegations the charges announced Thursday relate to, but two men previously have said Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when Pell was a senior priest in Melbourne.
Patton said in Melbourne that none of the allegations against Pell have been tested in any court, adding: "Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process."
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Holy See had learned with "regret" of the charges and that the work of Pell's office would continue in his absence, albeit only its "ordinary" affairs.
In a statement to reporters while sitting beside Pell, Mr. Burke said the Vatican respected Australia's justice system but recalled that the cardinal had "openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable" acts of sexual abuse against minors.
He noted that Pell had cooperated with Australia's Royal Commission investigation into sex abuse and that as a bishop in Australia, he worked to protect children and compensate victims.
"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," Burke added.
Pell's leave takes effect immediately and he will not participate in any public liturgical events while it is in place, the Vatican said.
The cardinal said he intends to eventually return to Rome to resume his work as prefect of the Vatican's economy ministry.
The charges were announced on a major Catholic feast day, when many of the world's cardinals were already in Rome for a ceremony Wednesday to elevate five new cardinals. As Pell spoke to reporters, preparations were underway in St. Peter's Square for a Mass that Pell had been expected to join, but he stood down after the charges were announced.
The charges also will complicate Mr. Francis's financial reform efforts at the Vatican, which were already strained by Pell's repeated clashes with the Italian-dominated bureaucracy. Just last week, one of Pell's top allies, the Vatican's auditor general, resigned without explanation two years into a five-year term, immediately raising questions about whether the reform effort was doomed.
Burke said Pell's economy secretariat would continue working in his absence.
A prolonged absence would require Francis to make other provisions, since it is unclear if the office could, for example, issue the Holy See's annual financial statement without Pell's imprimatur.
Pell's actions as archbishop came under scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the nation's highest form of inquiry – found shocking levels of abuse in Australia's Catholic Church, revealing this year that 7 percent of priests were accused of sexually abusing children over several decades.
Last year, Pell testified to the commission that the Catholic Church had made "enormous mistakes" in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. He vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.
But he nevertheless became something of a scapegoat in Australia for the Catholic Church's mishandling of the scandal. His move to Rome to head Francis's reform effort had been viewed by many of his critics as an attempt to avoid justice.
Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican. But in a statement from the Sydney Archdiocese, Pell said he would return to Australia "as soon as possible," following advice and approval by his doctors. Last year, Pell declined to return to Australia to testify for the third time before the Royal Commission, saying he was too ill to fly. He instead testified via video conference from Rome.
The Blue Knot Foundation, an Australian support group for adult survivors of childhood abuse, said the decision to charge Pell sent a powerful message to abuse survivors and society as a whole.
"It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications, or standing," the group's head of research, Pam Stavropoulos, said in a statement.
Proving the charges may be difficult. The prosecution must prove that the sex offenses occurred beyond a reasonable doubt, which can be difficult when so much time has passed, said Lisa Flynn, national manager of Shine Lawyers' abuse law practice in Australia.
In 2014, Francis won cautious praise from victims' advocacy groups when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about "best practices" to fight abuse and protect children.
But the commission has since lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left. Francis also scrapped the commission's signature proposal – a tribunal to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse – after Vatican officials objected.
Francis drew heated criticism for his 2015 appointment of a Chilean bishop accused by victims of helping cover up for Chile's most notorious pedophile. The pope was later caught on videotape labeling the parishioners who opposed the nomination "leftists" and "stupid."
Asked last year about the accusations against Pell, Francis said he would wait for Australian justice to take its course before commenting.
It was unclear if Pell would face a church trial stemming from the accusations. The Vatican has clear guidelines about initiating a canonical investigation if there is a semblance of truth to sex abuse accusations against a cleric. In the case of a cardinal, it would fall to Francis himself to judge. Penalties for a guilty verdict in a church trial include defrocking.