Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on as he makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office, Vatican city. Pic/AFP
Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on as he makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office, Vatican city. Pic/AFP

Australian police on Thursday charged Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, with multiple historical sex crimes, bringing a worldwide abuse scandal to the heart of the Vatican.

As Vatican economy minister, Pell is the highest-ranking Church official to face such accusations.

He asserted his innocence and said the pontiff had given him leave of absence to return to Australia to defend himself.

"I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false," the 76-year-old told a news conference.
"The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

Pell's high-profile departure, even if only temporary, poses a dilemma for a pontiff who has vowed zero tolerance for such offences.

It may also have implications for Francis' drive to reform Vatican finances, which has been spearheaded by Pell, who also sits on a panel of nine cardinals from around the world who advise the pope.

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.

They did not detail the charges against Pell or specify the ages of the alleged victims or the period when the crimes were alleged to have occurred. He was ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates' Court on July 18.