Cardinal George Pell said Thursday that he would take leave from the Vatican to return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges after being given strong backing from Pope Francis, who has not asked him to resign from his senior Church post.
Hours after becoming the highest-profile Catholic cleric to face such charges, the Vatican finance chief said he had been a victim of "relentless character assassination" and vowed to clear his name and return to work.
"I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I am innocent of these charges," the 76-year-old said at a press conference. "They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
Pell, unofficially considered the number three in the Vatican hierarchy, said he had been in close contact with Francis.
In a strongly supportive statement, the Vatican said Pell's staff would continue his work in his absence and noted Francis's respect for the Australian's "honesty" and "energetic dedication" to his work on Church financial reform.
"The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised," the statement said.
"At the same time, it is important to recall that Cardinal 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 ... 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."
The tone of the statement echoed Francis's comment last year that Pell, one of his closest advisors, should not be subject to "a media verdict, a verdict based on gossip".
Police in the Australian state of Victoria announced earlier that Pell had been charged with "historical sexual assault offences" and ordered him to appear in a Melbourne court on July 18.
Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said there were "multiple complainants" but provided no details as to the precise nature of the charges, or the age of the alleged victims.
A lawyer for two unidentified men who had made abuse claims against Pell said they were "over the moon" about the charges.
"It's been very difficult for them to stick their neck out," the lawyer, Ingrid Irwin, told Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper. "To come out against someone who is second to God, in some people's minds, has caused all sorts of problems for them."
The repercussions for the Church could be significant, the editor of the Australian online forum Catholica, Brian Coyne, told AFP.
"This is the most senior person in the church who has ever been charged and the implications are both huge for the future of the Catholic Church in this country and internationally," Coyne said.
SNAP, a US-based network of survivors of clerical abuse, praised the Australian authorities' action.
"We hope it will inspire other countries to follow in their footsteps," spokeswoman Joelle Casteix said. "Sexual abuse thrives when it is allowed to flourish in secrecy."
The announcement coincides with the final stages of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
Pell has appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link, during which he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
The Pell charges stem from investigations by a Victoria police task force into allegations emanating from the Royal Commission and from a state parliamentary inquiry.
The commission said in February that seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but that the allegations were never investigated.
It found that 4,444 alleged incidents of paedophilia were reported to church authorities and, in some dioceses, more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators.
Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966 before returning to Australia in 1971, eventually becoming the country's top Catholic cleric.
He was accused of sex abuse when he was the Archbishop of Sydney in 2002 but was cleared of any wrongdoing.