|Victoria Police charge Cardinal George Pell|
Cardinal George Pell says he is looking forward to his day in court after being charged with historical sexual assault offences.
Key points :
- Charges involve multiple complainants
- Pell has always maintained his innocence and strenuously denied any wrongdoing
- Victoria Police says charging process has involved "common and standard practice"
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.
"Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors, who will also advise on his travel arrangements," a statement released by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said.
"He has again strenuously denied all allegations."
He is expected to make a further statement in Rome at 4:30pm AEST.
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton earlier told reporters the charges involved multiple complainants.
A magistrate will decide whether to release the details and the nature of the charges at a separate hearing on July 6.
Last July, police confirmed they were formally investigating complaints about offences alleged to have occurred in Ballarat in the 1970s.
Pell has always maintained his innocence and denied any wrongdoing.
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.
In July, Pell said the allegations were part of a smear campaign by the media.
"The allegations are untrue, I deny them absolutely," Pell said.
"I'm like any other Australian — I'm entitled to a fair go."
However, he said he was "quite prepared to co-operate" with the process.
In October, three Victoria Police detectives flew to Rome to interview Pell.
A Victoria Police statement issued at the time said: "Cardinal George Pell voluntarily participated in an interview regarding allegations of sexual assault."
Australia does not have an extradition treaty with the Vatican, even though it does with Italy.
Ian Rothwell, a professor of International Law at ANU said because Pell had indicated he would return to Australia, it was unlikely the issue of diplomatic immunity would "become a live issue".
Although others in senior roles inside the church had been involved in serious prosecutions, this case was unique.
Professor Rothwell said Pell would be one of the most senior Catholics to be involved in a serious prosecution.
"Certainly to my knowledge this is the first occasion that any one of the eminent rank of a Cardinal within the Catholic Church has been subject to criminal proceedings of this type," he said.
Child sexual assault survivor advocate Chrissie Foster said it was right that the allegations would now be heard in the courts.
"I've been waiting to see what happens with this investigation for a long time," she said.
Ms Foster's daughters Emma and Katie were raped by Melbourne paedophile priest Father Kevin O'Donnell when they were in primary school in the 1980s.
In a statement from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, Archbishop Denis Hart said he was aware of the significance of the decision to charge Pell.
"Cardinal Pell has been a friend and brother priest of Archbishop Hart for more than 50 years," the statement said.
"The Archbishop is conscious of the Cardinal's many good works which have been acknowledged both nationally and internationally.
"It is important all in society recognise that the presumption of innocence applies and that Cardinal Pell, like all Australians, is entitled to a fair trial."
Conservative cardinal's road to Vatican
Pell was the son of a Ballarat publican, a head prefect at school and a talented Australian Rules footballer, who was signed as a ruckman by the Richmond Football Club.
His studies took him to Rome and then Oxford.
In 1971 he returned to Victoria as an ordained priest, and rose through the ranks to eventually become Archbishop of Melbourne.
He rankled progressive Catholics with his resistance to change, including on issues such as the ordination of female priests, divorce and abortion.
He also refused communion to gay activists at one of his masses.
In 1990 he said: "Homosexuality — we're aware that it does exist. We believe such activity is wrong and we believe for the good of society it should not be encouraged."
His hardline conservatism caught the attention of Rome, and he was chosen to join a Vatican congregation dedicated to enforcing orthodoxy.
"There are many smorgasbord Catholics who choose a bit of this and that ... my business as bishop is to proclaim the whole of the message," he said.
In 1996, then-Archbishop Pell was the first Catholic leader to address the child sexual abuse that has plagued the church.
He instigated a redress scheme called the Melbourne Response.
When announcing the scheme he said: "It's a matter of regret that the Catholic Church has taken some time to come to grips with the sex abuse issue adequately."
But the Melbourne Response, which capped compensation for victims at $50,000, was widely criticised as being legalistic and not offering enough support to victims.
He then became Archbishop of Sydney and was made a cardinal.
In 2014, he was chosen by the Pope to get the Vatican's finances in order and he moved to Rome.
Ill health prevented him from returning to Australia in 2016 to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.