(CNN) – Cardinal George Pell, a senior adviser to Pope Francis and the third-ranking official in the Holy See, is taking leave from the Vatican to fight historical sexual assault charges in his home country of Australia.
The case is the latest black mark against the Catholic Church, which has been reeling from sexual abuse scandals across several countries that date back decades. It could also have ramifications for Pope Francis, who counts Pell among his closest aides.
Australian police have not released a detailed list of charges against Pell and didn’t disclose any information about alleged victims, saying only that there were multiple charges and “multiple complainants.”
Pell said he had been the victim of “relentless character assassination,” as he held a news conference early Thursday in Rome to rebut the allegations.
“I’m innocent of these charges, they are false,” Pell said. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Pell will be required to appear in the Melbourne Magistrate’s court on July 26 for a filing hearing, when a full charge list is expected to be released.
Police said he was not receiving any special treatment, despite his elevated status as the Vatican’s treasurer.
“I want to be perfectly clear — the process and the procedures that have been 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,” Victoria Deputy Police Commissioner Shane Patton said at a news conference.
“Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation.”
Pell said he looked forward to defending himself against the claims, which have swirled around him in the Australian media for some two years.
“All along, I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name,” Pell said. “I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court.”
SNAP, the US-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, welcomed the development. “We are always grateful and encouraged when law enforcement works hard to gather evidence to build a case against a powerful and influential man,” the group said in a statement.
Patton told the media conference: “During the course of the investigation in relation to Cardinal Pell, there has been a lot of reporting in the media and speculation about the process that has been involved in the investigation and also the charging.
“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 offences whenever we investigate them.
“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. There has been no change in any procedures whatsoever. Advice was received and sought from the office of public prosecutions, however ultimately, the choice to charge Cardinal Pell was one that was made by Victoria police.
“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.”
Patton said as the matter was now due before the court, police would be making no further comment.
Victoria’s director of public prosecutions, John Champion, released a statement saying he would be involved in “conducting these criminal proceedings”.
“I will be required to do so in a manner that is fair and just to all parties, including the alleged offender,” he said.