Vatican City, Thursday
Cardinal George Pell has said that he would take leave from the Vatican to return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges after being given strong backing from Pope Francis, who has not asked him to resign from his senior Church post.
Hours after becoming the highest-profile Catholic cleric to face such charges, the Vatican finance chief said he had been a victim of “relentless character assassination” and vowed to clear his name and return to work.
“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I am innocent of these charges,” the 76-year-old said at a press conference. “They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Pell, unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, said he had been in close contact with Francis.
In a strongly supportive statement, the Vatican said Pell’s staff would continue his work in his absence and noted Francis’s respect for the Australian’s “honesty” and “energetic dedication” to his work on Church financial reform.
“The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised,” the statement said.
“At the same time, it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors; has cooperated in the past with Australian authorities … has supported the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and finally, as a diocesan bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”