A top adviser to Pope Francis is returning to Australia to face sexual abuse charges.
Cardinal George Pell, 76, says he was innocent of charges and that the pontiff had given him leave of absence to return there to defend himself.
Australian police charged him with multiple historical sex crimes and he said that he is looking forward to finally to having his day in court.
Pell has been the Vatican’s money man since 2014 and is the highest-ranking Church official to be charged with sexual abuse.
Police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a country priest in the 1970s, said he faced “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences” from multiple complainants.
No details have been provided in the case yet but Pell was ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18.
Pell told an Australian government inquiry into institutional child abuse last year that the Church had made “catastrophic” choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish, and relying too heavily on the counsel of priests to solve the problem.
He miffed victims by saying he was too ill to fly home, testifying instead from Rome.
Victoria police then confirmed that Pell was being investigated on suspicion of child sexual abuse.
Francis said at the time that Pell should not undergo trial by media, adding: “It’s in the hands of the justice system and one cannot judge before the justice system … After the justice system speaks, I will speak.”
All this puts a lot of pressure on Francis to clean out the Vatican swamp and make make good on promises finally to root out sexual abuse in the Church and act against those who cover it up.
Marie Collins, the top non-clerical member of a papal commission on abuse, resigned in frustration this year, citing “shameful” resistance to change within the Vatican.
Francis did through the good book at Jozef Wesolowski, a former archbishop who was accused of paying for sex with minors while serving as papal ambassador in the Dominican Republic.
Wesolowski was recalled in 2013, defrocked and arrested in the Vatican in 2014, but died shortly before his trial was due to start in 2015.