Cardinal charged with multiple sex assaults
Sydney — Australian police charged a top Vatican cardinal on Thursday with multiple counts of historical sexual assault offenses, a stunning decision certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.
Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ chief financial adviser and Australia’s most senior Catholic, 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 police have summonsed Pell to appear in an Australian court to face multiple charges of “historic sexual offenses,” meaning offenses that generally occurred some time ago. Patton said there are multiple complainants against Pell, but gave no other details on the allegations against the cardinal. Pell was ordered to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
Pell has repeatedly denied all abuse allegations made against him. The Catholic Church in Australia, which issues statements on Pell’s behalf, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges.
“It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have, obviously, been tested in any court yet,” Patton told reporters in Melbourne. “Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process.”
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 a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. Australia’s 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.
But more recently, Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview the cardinal. It is unclear what allegations the charges announced Thursday relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when Pell was a senior priest in Melbourne.
Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican. That leaves two likely outcomes: Either Pell volunteers to return to Australia to fight the charges, or the Vatican could tell the cardinal to do so, said Donald Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University.
“I would think that the pope would be very concerned to think that one of his cardinals, and someone who holds a high position within the Vatican government structure, is being wanted on criminal charges in Australia,” Rothwell said in a recent interview. “So if the pope was to say, ‘Well look, Cardinal Pell, I’d like you to return to Australia and mount a defense,’ I’m sure Cardinal Pell would probably follow that instruction. … In the case of someone like Cardinal Pell, the sway that the pope and the church has over him is much greater than the ordinary citizen.”
The charges put Pope Francis in a thorny position. In 2014, Francis won cautious praise from victims’ advocacy groups when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about “best practices” to fight abuse and protect children.
But the commission has since lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left. Francis also scrapped the commission’s signature proposal — a tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse — after Vatican officials objected.
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