According to multiple media reports, Cardinal George Pell, currently the head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, could face legal charges in his native Australia over decades-old allegations of sexual abuse.
Police in the Australian state of Victoria, in which Pell’s home Diocese of Ballarat is located, confirmed on Tuesday they “received advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions relating to a current investigation into historical sexual assault allegations.”
Pell has long denied the allegations vehemently.
The police investigations surround accusations that Pell inappropriately touched two young boys while swimming in the late 70s, and that he exposed himself in a change room in a surf club in the 1980s.
Those allegations were investigated by Victoria’s SANO unit, which was set up in 2012 to look into new and historic cases of sex abuse at religious and other non-governmental organizations.
Pell became an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987, before becoming archbishop of the same archdiocese 9 years later. He was moved to Sydney in 2001, and was appointed a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003. Pope Francis picked him to take charge of the Vatican’s finances in 2014, and he moved to Rome.
Pell cooperated with the SANO investigation, and agreed to be interviewed by detectives in the Vatican last October.
The investigators returned the findings to prosecutors earlier this year.
Now that the Director of Public Prosecutions has given its advice to the police, it is up to the them to decide whether or not to pursue charges.
Police spokesperson Creina O’Grady told local reporters that detectives “will now take time to consider that advice.
“As with any investigation, it will be a decision for Victoria Police as to whether charges are laid,” she said, “as this remains an ongoing investigation, we will not be commenting further at this time.”
When the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on the investigation in July 2016, Pell’s office released a statement “emphatically and unequivocally” rejecting any allegations of sexual abuse.
“The cardinal’s conduct has been repeatedly scrutinized over many years, including before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organizations and according to leaked reports, by Victorian Police’s SANO Taskforce,” the 2016 statement said.
“The cardinal does not wish to cause any distress to any victim of abuse. However, claims that he has sexually abused anyone, in any place, at any time in his life are totally untrue and completely wrong,” it continued.
“He denies the allegations absolutely, and says that they, and any acceptance of them by the ABC, are nothing more than a scandalous smear campaign which appears to be championed by the ABC. If there was any credibility in any of these claims, they would have been pursued by the Royal Commission by now,” the statement said.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was set up in 2013 to examine the history of sexual abuse in religious and educational institutions, as well as other organizations dealing with young people. It works closely with Victoria’s SANO taskforce, and other local agencies.
On Monday, a new book was released in Australia detailing further accusations against Pell.
Cardinal: The Rise And Fall of George Pell, was written by Louise Milligan, a journalist with the the ABC, and includes allegations Pell abused choirboys in the 1990s, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell’s lawyers issued a statement Saturday stating the cardinal will not respond to the latest allegations made in the book, other than to restate that “any allegations of child abuse made against him are completely false.”
The statement also said the book was a “deliberate attempt to influence the public opinion in a manner that would make it impossible for our client to receive a fair hearing in court should he be charged.”
The statement said Pell “repeats his vehement and consistent denials of any and all such accusations, and stands by all the evidence he has given to the royal commission.”
According to the royal commission, nearly 10 percent of the priests of the Diocese of Ballarat had an allegation of sexual abuse brought against them between 1950 and 2010.
When asked about Pell during his inflight press conference after leaving World Youth Day in Poland on July 31, 2016, Francis said “one must not judge before justice judges.”
Francis also warned against a “media trial” and the “judgement of gossip.”
“Once justice speaks, I will speak,” the pope said.