Charges of sexual offenses against one of the Vatican’s top-ranking prelates have placed new pressure on Pope Francis to make good on pledges to root out, punish and prevent abuses that have shaken the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
Cardinal George Pell, the most senior church official to be implicated in a far-flung scandal of decades’ standing, said Thursday that he would return to his native Australia to face the charges against him.
He dismissed the charges as “relentless character assassination.”
The cardinal, who is a senior advisor to Francis, told reporters in Vatican City that the pontiff had granted him a leave of absence to contest the charges, which bring the globe-spanning abuse allegations directly to the gates of the Vatican.
Although cases of priest-committed pedophilia and their wrenchingly long-lasting repercussions remain an open wound in dozens of dioceses across the United States and other countries, it is rare for direct allegations of abuse to reach the level of a cardinal, each of whom is known as a “prince of the church.”
Australian authorities described the charges against Pell as centering on sex offenses committed decades ago in Australia — “historical” crimes, in police language. Pell had already come under withering scrutiny in his homeland for allegedly helping to cover up sexual predation by others while he held senior church positions in Australia.
From his humble beginnings as a parish priest, Pell, 76, rose to become the Vatican’s powerful finance czar, tasked by Francis with untangling the convoluted accounting practices of the church’s worldwide empire. The cardinal’s sidelining could significantly hamper that ambitious reform effort, which has drawn significant hostility from elements of the Vatican bureaucracy.
The abuse scandal, which has colored successive papacies, is a far more visible public battle.Francis has pledged “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse within the clerical ranks and has offered personal apologies to victims for past sexual predation and the church’s attempts to diminish and deny it. Yet he has also come under criticism for alleged foot-dragging and failure to forcefully confront institutional resistance to transparency and accountability.
“Clearly, this case is going to turn up the heat on this pope’s record on examination of sexual abuse,” said John Allen, the editor of Crux, an independent website covering the Vatican and the church. But he predicted that Pell, who in his youth excelled at the rough-and-tumble sport of Australian rules football, would aggressively fight the charges.
The cardinal, who did not take questions during his Vatican City appearance, has been ordered to appear before a court in Melbourne on July 18.
"I am looking forward finally to having my day in court,” Pell told reporters. “I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false.… The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
The charges originated in the Australian state of Victoria, where police said, without providing details, that there were multiple charges from multiple complainants lodged against Pell.
For many victims in the U.S. and elsewhere, the cardinal’s case revives painful memories of being disbelieved and dismissed after suffering abuses in childhood at the hands of priests who were respected, even beloved, in their communities.
In one of the most notorious U.S. cases, in the Archdiocese of Boston, abuse and cover-ups involving hundreds of clergy and thousands of victims, many dating back decades, were documented in a 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Boston Globe and the 2015 movie “Spotlight.” But new accusations, of abuse and systematic attempts to conceal it, continue to surface.
During his visit to the United States in 2015, Francis disappointed and surprised many victims and advocates when he appeared to praise American bishops for their handling of abuse cases. Although the pope has since expressed sympathy for those who suffered abuse, Vatican follow-up has been inadequate, said Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and priest who has worked with victims of pedophile priests in the U.S. for more than three decades
“Hopefully, this will get the pope’s attention, not only about Pell but about the problem in general,” he said. “The pope has done nothing so far. There’s a lot of disappointment among victims.”
With the Pell case throwing into sharp relief a long-standing sense of alienation and anger, the case could have grave ramifications for Francis’ papacy, some Vatican watchers said.
“It poses an enormous credibility challenge,” said Cristina Traina, a religion professor at Northwestern University. “It needs to be taken quite seriously. Statements of regret and distress and promises to do better in the future at this point are inadequate.”
Critics point to an enormous backlog of sexual abuse cases that have gone unacted upon. In 2014, Francis created a commission including two abuse victims to advise on the weeding out of predator priests, but the two victims — Peter Saunders and Marie Collins — left the commission amid frustrations over its inaction.
Collins said in an online post that though she was reserving judgment on whether Pell was guilty of committing abuse, he should have been made to answer to allegations he took part in cover-ups and should never have attained the prominent post he was given by Francis.
“He should never have been allowed to hide out in the Vatican to avoid having to face those in his home country who needed answers,” Collins wrote on her website.
The case will take time to wend its way through Australian courts, and the outcome could ultimately color Francis’ overall legacy, some observers said.
“His very image as a bold reformer hangs in the balance here, depending on what measures he takes in the aftermath of the Pell case,” said Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Sex abuse cases are the Achilles’ heel of his papacy.”
Previously, Pell said he was ill and declined to return to Australia to testify in a government inquiry, answering questions instead in February 2016 by video link from a Rome hotel.
The cardinal has acknowledged “catastrophic” errors on the church’s part in its handling of abuse complaints, but denied any personal wrongdoing.
So far, the Vatican has been largely supportive of Pell. Last year, when police confirmed that the cardinal was under investigation for sex offenses, Francis said it was important not to rush to judgment.
"It's in the hands of the justice system, and one cannot judge before the justice system,” the pontiff said then. “After the justice system speaks, I will speak."
Some Vatican watchers, however, pointed to a degree of papal distancing from Pell. A Vatican spokesman said Thursday that effective immediately the cardinal would not be taking place in liturgical celebrations.
The Vatican, which is a sovereign city-state in the middle of Rome, has sheltered church officials from criminal allegations.
Under previous popes, it sheltered officials wanted by other countries. That included even Italy, which was rebuffed when it sought the handover of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the then-head of the Vatican bank who was wanted for questioning about the fraudulent bankruptcy of a private Italian bank.
But Francis took a tougher line toward Jozef Wesolowski, a former archbishop who was accused of paying shoeshine boys for sex while serving as papal ambassador in the Dominican Republic. He was recalled and defrocked but was found dead of natural causes in 2015 in his Vatican quarters before he could face a judge.