George Pell granted leave by Pope to fight historic sexual assault offences

 Cardinal George Pell is returning to Australia to fight historical sexual assault charges laid by Victoria Police today.

Pell said he had been the victim of “relentless character assassination” and the charges “strengthened his resolve” to clear his name.

He said he wanted to return to Australia for his “day in court”, after being granted leave by Pope Francis.

“I’m looking forward, finally, to having my day in court,” he said.

“I’m innocent of those charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.

“There have been leaks to the media. There has been relentless character assassination.”

In a press conference from the Vatican, Pell said he had spoken to Pope Francis about the case and had been granted leave.

Clouds hang over St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

 

“I’ve kept Pope Francis, the Holy Father, regularly informed during these long months,” he said.

“I have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week. We talked about my need to take leave to clear my name.

“So I’m grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.”

Pell reiterated his innocence saying he had spoken to his lawyers about when he needed to return, and to his doctors about how to travel to Australia.

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

“News of these charges strengthens my resolve, strengthens my resolve.

“Court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here, back to Rome to work.”

Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric, has been ordered to appear in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18, after Victoria Police served charges on his legal representatives.

Victoria Police Deputy Police Commissioner Shane Patton earlier told reporters the charges involved multiple complainants.

Cardinal George Pell speaks into a microphone during a press conference at the Vatican.

 

A magistrate will decide next week whether to release the details and the nature of the charges. A hearing will take place on July 6.

Deputy Commissioner Patton said the “process and procedures” being followed had been the same as those applied “in a whole range of historical sex offences, whenever we investigate them”.

“The fact that he has been charged on summons — we have used advice from the Office of Public Prosecutions and also we have engaged with his legal representatives, which is common and standard practice.”

As head of the Vatican’s finances, Pell is considered number three in the Catholic hierarchy behind the Pope.

A statement from the Vatican said the Pope recognised the importance of Pell’s participation to ensure the process was carried out fairly and to foster the search for truth.

“The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised,” the statement said.

“At the same time, it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable, the acts of abuse committed against minors, has cooperated in the past with Australian authorities (for example, in his depositions from the royal commission).

“And as a diocesan bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”

Holy See spokesman Greg Burke said from now on, Pell would not be going out to do public liturgical events.