(CNN)Cardinal George Pell, one of the most senior members of the Catholic Church, has been charged with multiple historical sexual assault offenses in his home country of Australia, police said Thursday.
Pell strenuously denied the allegations in a statement, which said he would return from Rome as soon as possible to “clear his name.”
“He is looking forward to his day and court and will defend the charges vigorously,” the statement said.
Police have not released a detailed list of charges and didn’t disclose any information about alleged victims, saying only there was “multiple complainants.” Police denied Pell was receiving special treatment.
“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 Pattonsaid at a news conference.
“Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation.”
Pell currently serves as a top adviser to Pope Francis and the Vatican’s top financial adviser. In 2013, he was named one of eight cardinals tasked with investigating ways to reform the church.
He is the most senior member of the Catholic Church in Australia.
Sex abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church has been documented in the United States, Ireland, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia.
Pell is likely the highest-ranking Catholic official charged in connection with sex abuse in recent years.
“His role is to oversee the budgeting processes and financial procedures of the Vatican,” CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen said.
“If it’s analogous to the US government, he would basically be the secretary of the treasury.”
Pell has previously denied covering up abuse committed by priests when he served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001. But he acknowledgedhis predecessor, Archbishop Frank Little, now deceased, had destroyed documents to protect priests.
Pell will be required to appear in the Melbourne Magistrate’s court on July 18 for a filing hearing, when a full charge list is expected to be released. He is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges, police said.
Cardinal George Pell was born on June 8, 1941, in Ballarat, Australia.
He was ordained in 1966. Twenty-one years later, he was elected titular Bishop of Scala and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and received episcopal ordination on 21 May 1987.
Pope John Paul II named him the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, a position he held until 2001, when he was named the Archbishop of Sydney
In April 2013
, Pope Francis named him one of eight cardinals tasked with studying reform in the Catholic Church
SNAP, the US-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, lauded the decision in a statement. “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 statement said.
Ramifications for Pope?
The announcement is likely to deal a serious blow to the reputation of the Catholic Church in Australia, which has seen its membership shrink in recent years. The 2016 census results, released Tuesday, showed that Catholics no longer make up the top religious affiliation in Australia.
The charges could also have ramifications for Pope Francis, who counts Cardinal Pell among his top advisers.
“It’s not every day that a senior Vatican official is facing criminal charges,” Allen said. “It’s going to cast a new spotlight on Pope Francis’ track record in dealing with the abuse crisis, which frankly I think most observers would tell you is kind of mixed.”
When asked about the allegations last year, Pope Francis said he’d defer to the courts before making his own judgment.
Before the probe, Pell was largely seen as indifferent to the scandal in Australia, according to Allen.
“In Australia, George Pell would be seen as kind of the leading symbol of the sex abuse problem. And that’s in part because he has said some things and done some things that victims and lawyers and advocacy groups have seen as insensitive and tone-deaf,” Allen said. “His defenders would have a different line, but that certainly has been the charge.”
Pell testified multiple times to the Royal Commission in 2013 and apologized for the abuse. He also acknowledged that cover-ups allowed pedophile priests to continue abusing children.
“The primary motivation would have been to respect the reputation of the church. There was a fear of scandal,” Pell said. ”Many in the church did not understand just what damage was being done to the victims. We understand that better now.”
Pell’s statements will likely be key in a trial.
“A lot of legal observers in Australia were telling me that they were skeptical that there would be enough to these accusations to sustain a criminal indictment,” Allen said.
“This Royal Commission, that the government poured God knows how much money into, I think was under intense pressure to get a scalp on the wall. And I’m quite sure that’s what Pell’s legal team and his defenders are going to be saying.”
Australia and the Vatican, which is located in Rome but independent of Italy, do not have an extradition treaty, according to Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University.