Vatican finance chief charged with "historical sexual assault offenses" in Australia

The shoe finally dropped for Cardinal George Pell. After an investigation that ran for almost two years, Australian prosecutors charged the Vatican’s chief of financial affairs with “historical sexual assault offenses” related to his time as a priest decades ago. Pell protested his innocence and declared that he will return to his native country to fight the charges:

Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’s finance chief and one of the most senior officials in the Vatican, was charged Thursday with multiple counts of sexual abuse alleged to have occurred in Australia decades ago.

The 76-year-old is the highest-level Vatican official to face charges in the sexual-abuse scandals that have beset the Catholic Church in the past two decades. He will be required to appear at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18, Shane Patton, deputy commissioner of Victoria state’s police force, said at a news conference.

Cardinal Pell told reporters in Rome on Thursday morning that he was “innocent of these charges” and would be returning to Australia to clear his name in court. He said Pope Francis, with whom he had discussed the matter a day earlier, had granted him a leave of absence for that purpose.

The WSJ’s Francis Rocca and Robb Stewart point out that Australia does not have an extradition agreement with the Vatican, so Pell’s return was not compelled — at least not by Australia. CBS News suggests that it might not have been a case of requesting the leave of absence:

Robert Mickens, with Catholic publication “La Croix International,” has been covering the Vatican for 25 years, and he tells CBS News the charges against Pell represent “a major blow” for the church.

“You have to understand that the Vatican language is always going to be more conciliatory. Cardinal Pell said the pope has ‘given’ him a leave of absence — it’s very likely that the pope stood him down,” Mickens says.

That may not be the case, though; Pell is known as someone who rarely backs down from a fight. It’s in his public character to push back, and this morning he did. Pell insists that he’s innocent of the charges and wants to clear his name. Pell also ripped the investigators for leaks during the probe, as America Magazine’s Gerard O’Connell reports:

“I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court. I repeat I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” Cardinal George Pell said in a statement he read to the media in a crowded Vatican press hall at 8.30 a.m. on the morning of June 29.

He was referring to the “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual abuse” that have been made against him by the Victoria police, and were made public on June 29. The charges are criminal and he has been summoned to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.

He pointed out that “these matters” have been under investigation for nearly two years, and said, “There have been leaks to the media, relentless character assassination and for more than a month claims that a decision on laying charges is ‘imminent’.”

What are the allegations? Rocca outlined them a year ago at the WSJ, which had followed allegations that Pell had covered up abuses by priests under his supervision:

Australian police are investigating a senior cardinal at the Vatican over accusations that he sexually abused minors several decades ago.

The case stems from accusations that Australian Cardinal George Pell, the chief of a finance body recently established by Pope Francis, sexually abused children on various occasions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. …

The police investigation stems from a large-scale royal commission inquiry—Australia’s highest form of judicial inquiry—that is hearing allegations of institutionalized child abuse in organizations ranging from the Catholic Church to sports clubs and youth groups. The inquiry is expected to take several years to complete.

Earlier this year, the commission questioned the cardinal about allegations that he had failed to report instances of child abuse by other priests decades ago. The hearings took place in late February via video link, with the cardinal testifying from Rome, since he wasn’t well enough to travel to Australia.

These charges allege abuse committed by Pell himself, however. If proven, a conviction of such a high-ranking Vatican official will raise questions about the Catholic Church’s efforts to end the abuse scandals, especially after the resignations of two former victims from Pope Francis’ advisory commission on the subject over the last few months.

That’s not the only problem facing the Vatican with Pell’s departure, John Allen writes at Crux. Pell was brought in to reform the financial affairs of the Holy See, which had provided scandals of its own. Pell would be the second departure in a month, and the reform project may end up “rudderless”:

Pell was, and remains, a key figure in the pope’s plans for a financial clean-up, and with him hobbled, the prospects for that clean-up may well take a turn for the worse.

For one thing, for as long as he’s on a leave of absence defending himself, the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy which he leads will be essentially rudderless, trapped in a sort of limbo until his long-term status is clarified. Since the secretariat is responsible for implementing new financial management policies, including rational and standardized accounting procedures across all departments, that’s not an encouraging prospect.

For another, Francis has already lost one supposedly key figure in the reform effort, Italian businessman and auditing expert Libero Milone, who was hired in 2015 as the Vatican’s Auditor General. Milone recently resigned just two years in to a five-year term, with no explanation offered, feeding suspicions that he was either suspected of misconduct himself or perhaps simply not to the job.

Given the lead time on the charges, it seems likely that Pope Francis has had a succession plan drawn up. Pell at 76 wasn’t going to be in this position forever anyway, and a lengthy courtroom fight is one kind of event that succession plans should cover. It’s almost as important for the Vatican to keep its financial reforms moving forward as it is to rid itself of abusers and those who covered up for them. The pope knows this as well as anyone, and his reformist pontificate depends on keeping the momentum going on both fronts, so it seems likely that a replacement will come sooner than later — sooner in Vatican terms, of course.