Vatican Cardinal George Pell has said he will take a leave of absence, but will not resign, as he vowed to “clear” his name over multiple counts of historical sexual assault offences.
“I have kept Pope Francis regularly informed throughout this lengthy process, and have spoken to him in recent days about the need to take leave to clear my name,” Pell said in a statement on Thursday.
Pell is the pope’s chief financial adviser and Australia‘s most senior Catholic official.
Earlier on Thursday, he was summoned to appear in an Australian court to face multiple charges of “historic sexual offences”, meaning the offences generally occurred some time ago.
He is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal.
Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said Pell is required to appear at a Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 for a hearing.
The cardinal has strongly denied all accusations against him and said he is “looking forward” to his day in court.
“I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” Pell said in during news conference at the Vatican on Thursday.
While details regarding the charges have yet to be released, Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Sydney, said: “the fact that there are multiple charges to answer against, really gives the impression that these are very serious allegations.”
Pam Stavropoulos of the Sydney-based Blue Knot Foundation told Al Jazeera that the fact such charges have been issued “is highly significant”.
She said that the charges show “this is certainly a highly serious matter”.
The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised “zero tolerance” policy about sex abuse.
For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
His actions as archbishop came under intense scrutiny in recent years by an Australian government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.
In February, The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, reported more than 4,400 alleged incidents of sexual abuse by Catholic priests between 1980 and 2015.
It also said seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia were accused of sexually abusing children between 1950 and 2015, but few allegations were investigated.
During his testimony to the commission last year, Pell acknowledged that the church had made “enormous mistakes” in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests.
He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.