Pope’s top aide charged in sex assault case

AP PHOTO
Cardinal George Pell arrives to make a statement, at the Vatican, Thursday. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Vatican Cardinal George Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible.

AP PHOTO Cardinal George Pell arrives to make a statement, at the Vatican, Thursday. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Vatican Cardinal George Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis suffered a major blow when his top financial adviser, Cardinal George Pell, was charged in his native Australia with multiple counts of sexual assault from years ago, bringing a criminal case in the long-running abuse scandal inside the frescoed walls of the Vatican for the first time.

The 76-year-old Pell — the highest-ranking Vatican official ever implicated in the scandal — forcefully denied the accusations and took an immediate leave of absence as Vatican finance czar to return to Australia to defend himself.

“The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” Pell told reporters Thursday in the Vatican press office. “News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name.”

The pope thanked him for his “honest” work and collaboration, and set about trying to ensure that the financial reforms he had entrusted to Pell would continue in his absence.

But the case creates a thorny image problem for the pope, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised “zero tolerance” policy about sex abuse in the worldwide scandal.

In 2014, Francis won cautious praise from victims’ advocacy groups when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about the “best practices” to fight abuse and protect children.

But the commission has lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left in frustration.

Francis also scrapped the commission’s signature proposal — a tribunal to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse — after Vatican officials objected.