Listen to Cardinal Pell’s statement at the press conference here:

ROME — “I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sex abuse is abhorrent to me.”

With these defiant sentences, a calm but visibly shaken Cardinal George Pell made clear to journalists this morning his determination to clear his name when he returns to Australia to face charges of decades-old sex abuse at a hearing next month.

Although cardinals have been accused of abuse in the past, Pell is the highest-ranking church prelate ever to be criminally charged. As prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy (SPE), he is a key figure in Francis’s financial reform and one of the two or three most senior officials in the Roman Curia.

Both because of Pell’s seniority and because of his importance to the reform, the charges are arguably the biggest crisis yet to face the pope.

Speaking briefly alongside Holy See press director Greg Burke, the cardinal expressed his frustration at the way the investigation has been rumbling on over the past two years and said he was glad to have the chance finally to clear his name.

“There have been leaks to media, there has been relentless character assassination — relentless character assassination, and for more than a month a decision on whether to bring charges,” he said, adding: “I am looking forward finally to having my day in court.”

The charges were served on Pell’s legal representatives in Melbourne on Thursday, and they have been lodged also at Melbourne magistrates court. He will appear at the court on July 18.

Pell told journalists he has kept Pope Francis “regularly informed in these long months” and had spoken to him as recently as a “a day or two ago” about what he called his “need to take leave to clear my name.”

He said he was consulting his lawyers and doctors about “when this will be necessary” and “about the best way to achieve this.”

Pell suffers from a heart condition which meant that in February 2016 he asked to give evidence over video-link from Rome to Australia’s royal commission into historic sex abuse.

A statement from the Holy See said that it had learned “with regret” of the charges against the cardinal. It said that Pell, “acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognizing the importance of his participation to ensure that the process is carried out fairly, and to foster the search for truth.

“The Holy Father, having been informed by Cardinal Pell, has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself,” the statement added.

During Pell’s absence, “the Secretariat for the Economy will continue to carry out its institutional tasks” and “the secretaries will remain at their posts to carry forward the ordinary affairs of the dicastery, donec aliter provideatur” — meaning, “until something else is provided for.”

The statement said that Pope Francis “has appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration, and in particular, for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals (C9).”

The statement added:

“The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised. At the same time, it is important to recall that Card. 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 before the Royal Commission); has supported the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and finally, 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.”

Pell’s successor as Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said that in granting Pell a leave of absence as SPE prefect, “Pope Francis has emphasized respect for the rule of law — which includes the right of every citizen to due process and the presumption of innocence.”

Fisher went on to praise Pell as “an honest man … the Cardinal Pell I know is a man of integrity in his dealings with others, a man of faith and high ideals, a thoroughly decent man.”

But the archbishop added that while the Sydney Church will assist with Pell’s lodging and expenses, “as it would for any of its bishops or priests,” the archdiocese will not be footing the cardinal’s legal bills.

Fisher went on to say that while all allegations of abuse must be investigated, “no-one should be prejudged because of their high profile, religious convictions, or positions on social issues.

“The justice and compassion we all seek for victims of abuse includes getting to the truth of such allegations,” Fisher continued, adding: “We must now allow the impartial pursuit of justice. I would ask everyone to pray for truth and justice in this present case, pray for our Church at this difficult time, and to continue your prayers for all those affected by sexual abuse.”

Pell told journalists this morning that he had been “completely consistent and clear in my total prediction of these allegations” and that news of the allegations against him “strengthen my resolve.”

The proceedings “offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here, back to Rome, to continue with my work,” he said.

But many observers predict that the trial will be a lengthy and complex affair and that the cardinal, who is 76, may not be in a position afterwards to return to his Vatican work even if he is cleared. The evidence that will be examined relates to events alleged to have taken place 30 or 40 years ago, and the trial may not even begin for a year.

“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges … and there are multiple complainants,” Victoria police’s deputy commissioner Shane Patton said yesterday, adding that the charges were “historical sexual assault offences.”

At the end of the briefing, Burke told journalists that Pell would no longer be appearing in public liturgical events, including this morning’s Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

(This story has been updated to include Archbishop Fisher’s statement.)