Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell has been charged with multiple sexual offenses, Australian police say. Pell is now the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church's abuse scandal.
Pell, who was interviewed in Rome by Australian police last October over a number of allegations, was charged with several counts of sexual abuse on Thursday.
"There are multiple complainants relating to those charges," Victoria State Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters. The 76-year-old Pell was charged by summons to appear before a Melbourne court on July 18, Patton said.
Pell, who is his country's most senior Catholic cleric, strongly denies the allegations, which date back to his time as archbishop of Melbourne and as a priest in the town of Ballarat.
"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," said Patton.
Set to return for legal fight
Police have not yet disclosed exact details on the complaints that prompted charges against the cardinal.
The Catholic Church in Australia said on Thursday that Pell, who now lives at the Vatican, would return to Australia to fight the charges.
"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."
Questions over role as bishop
Pell has now become the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in a sexual abuse scandal that has dogged the Catholic church for years.
He has appeared three times in a national inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse. During those appearances he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s. Pell conceded to victims of abuse in Australia that "evil was done."
More recently, Pell himself became the focus of complaints. The police questioning in October followed allegations aired by the Australian broadcaster ABC. At least two men have claimed Pell touched them inappropriately during their youth.
Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966 and returned to Australia in 1971. He left for the Vatican in 2014 after being hand-picked by Pope Francis as part of an effort to make the church's finances more transparent.