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Top Vatican official Cardinal George Pell denies sex offense accusations

June 30, 2017 ·  By Melanie Eversley and Jane Onyanga-Omara, USA TODAY for www.usatoday.com

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Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on as he makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office, Vatican City on June 29, 2017 after being charged with historical sex offences in a case that has rocked the church. (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI, AFP/Getty Images)

Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on as he makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office, Vatican City on June 29, 2017 after being charged with historical sex offences in a case that has rocked the church. (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI, AFP/Getty Images)

Cardinal George Pell says he is taking a leave of absence as the Vatican’s finance czar after Australian police charged him with multiple counts of “historical” sexual assault. Pell says he’s going back to Australia to fight the charges. AP

One of the Vatican’s most senior officials on Thursday denied allegations of sexual offenses and said he would return to his native Australia to “clear my name.”

Police in Australia charged Cardinal George Pell, 76, Pope Francis’ chief financial adviser, with historical sexual offenses earlier Thursday. Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church’s ongoing sex-abuse scandal.

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton of Australia’s Victoria Police told a news conference that Pell is due to appear in magistrate’s court in Melbourne, Australia, on July 18 for a hearing. He said there were “multiple complainants” and did not elaborate.

Pell vehemently denied the accusations at a news conference at the Vatican on Thursday.

“I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court. I’m innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said.

“These matters have been under investigation now for two years. There have been leaks to the media, there’s been relentless character assassination and for more than a month, claims that a decision on whether to lay charges was imminent.

“I have kept Pope Francis, the holy father, regularly informed during these long months, and I have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week, I think most recently a day or so ago.”

Pell said he was very grateful to the pope for giving him leave to return to Australia and “clear my name.”

“All along I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations,” he added.

The Holy See said in a statement that it had learned of the charges “with regret.”

“Having become aware of the charges, Card. Pell, acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognizing the importance of his participation to ensure that the process is carried out fairly, and to foster the search for truth,” it said.

“The Holy Father, having been informed by Card. Pell, has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself.”

The Holy See said it was “important to recall that Card. Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors.”

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the Vatican’s financial reforms would continue in Pell’s absence, the Associated Press reported.

The charges represent a setback to the pope, who has promised a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to sex abuse.

For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney, the AP reported. His actions as archbishop came under tight scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to child sex abuse.

Australia’s years-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found high levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7% of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the last several decades, the AP reported.

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