An Australian court charged a powerful cardinal in Rome with the crime of “historic sex offenses” Thursday (local time), making the chief financial adviser to Pope Francis—and No. 3 in the church hierarchy—the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be charged for sexual abuse. The allegations against 76-year-old Cardinal George Pell date back decades to his time as a priest and then archbishop in Australia.
“Allegations raised in the past 18 months include that he assaulted boys at a Ballarat pool in the 1970s and allegations of assault at St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne, when he was archbishop,” according to the Australian. “Cardinal Pell was a parish priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, where he launched his extraordinary career. However, the diocese was riddled with hundreds and possibly thousands of cases of abuse in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.”
From the Associated Press:
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 a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. Australia’s years-long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse—the nation’s highest form of inquiry—has found shocking levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.
Last year, Pell acknowledged during his testimony to the commission that the Catholic 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.
Pell has maintained his innocence during the Australian government’s investigation of widespread sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, but did not return to the country to participate in a hearing on the matter, instead testifying via video after citing poor health. Pell has been ordered to appear in court on July 18 in Melbourne.