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Accused cardinal denies Australia sex abuse allegations, takes leave of absence

Australian Cardinal George Pell speaks to members of the media, at the Vatican, 29 June 2017. (Massimo Percossi/EPA)

Vatican Cardinal George Pell denied on Thursday accusations of “historical” sexual offense levied by Australian police, but will be taking a leave of absence from his role as chief financial adviser to defend himself.

Speaking to reporters, Pell denounced “relentless character assassination” in the media and confirmed he would return to Australia to face the charges.

“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” the 76-year-old cardinal said.

The Vatican, meanwhile, said it had learned of the charges “with regret” and appreciated the cardinal’s honesty and commitment during his three years working on reforming the Holy See’s finances.

Spokesman Greg Burke noted in the statement to reporters that Pell had in the past “repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable” acts of abuse against minors.

Pell is the highest ranking official at the Vatican ever to the charged for sexual abuse, part of a long running scandal embroiling the church.

Pell’s role in the functioning of the Vatican has been desribed as crucial and is seen as the second most powerful in Rome after the pope.

Deputy Commsioner Shane Patton of Australia’s Victoria state announced Thursday that Pell had been summoned to face multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offense.”

He will appear before a Melbourne court on July 18.

Pell has been dogged by questions of whether he was aware of sexual abuse by priests for years. In 2016, he testified, via video, to an Australian court over abuse of minors in the city of Ballart where he was a priest.

Pell was an adviser to the Bishop of Ballarat through the 1970s before becoming the archbishop of first Melbourne, and then Sydney. He was chosen to reform the church’s finances in 2014.

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