Cardinal George Pell is temporarily stepping down from his role as Vatican financial chief following the Australian police’s decision to charge him with multiple child sexual abuse offences.
In a statement delivered at the Vatican this morning, the cardinal said he would take a leave of absence in order to clear his name, after which he plans to return to his work in Rome.
Pope Francis today said he appreciated Pell’s “honesty” and was grateful for his collaboration in reforming Vatican finances.
But the latest developments represent the biggest crisis to face Francis’ papacy, throwing his plans to bring accountability and transparency to Vatican finances into uncertainty.
“I’m looking forward, finally, to having my day in court. I’m innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” Pell told journalists this morning at the Holy See press office.
“I’ve kept Pope Francis, the Holy Father, regularly informed during these long months. And I have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week, most recently a day-or-so ago. And we talked about my need to take leave to clear my name. So I’m very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.”
The 76-year-old cardinal, who was accompanied this morning by Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, said news of the charges had strengthened his “resolve” and added that the proceedings “offer me an opportunity to clear my name.”
The investigation, he pointed out, had been going on for two years during which he has suffered “relentless character assassination.”
While the Vatican stressed today that the Secretariat of the Economy’s work will continue it is now without its leader, and it was the Australian cardinal that the Pope entrusted with bringing order to the Vatican’s chaotic finances, with Pell working hard to make wide ranging changes.
The news that Cardinal Pell will be charged also puts the issue of clerical sexual abuse back on the agenda: he is the highest ranking Church figure ever to be formally charged with such offences.
Francis has consistently pledged “zero tolerance” when it comes to abuse and has taken steps to sack bishops who cover up incidents of abuse. But, earlier this year, Marie Collins, a member of a papal commission into safeguarding, stood down in frustration at the Vatican blocking reform.
Pell is now expected to appear in court on 18 July. He stressed today that he has spoken to doctors about the “best way” to achieve his return trip to Australia, given that in February last year the cardinal said a heart condition prevented him from making the long haul flight back to his home country. At that time he was due to give evidence to a royal commission investigation into institutional abuse.
The Holy See today expressed “its respect for the Australian justice system” but pointed out that the Cardinal has “openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors.” They also pointed out that “as a diocesan bishop in Australia he has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”
The Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said that like many people, he was "shocked" by the decision of Victorian Police to charge Cardinal Pell, who he said is "determined to clear his name."
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PICTURE: Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives to deliver a statement in the Vatican press office on 29 June