Australian top cleric takes leave to fight sexual abuse charge

Pell, wearing simple black clerical clothes and a dangling cross, read a statement declaring his innocence against the charges.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, who must appear on July 18 before a Melbourne judge to answer sexual assault charges, is the most senior cleric yet to be directly implicated in a scandal that has plagued the Church for decades

Speaking at the Vatican press office, Pell, wearing simple black clerical clothes and a dangling cross, read a statement declaring his innocence against the charges and what he called leaks by the news media and “relentless character assassination.”

“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court,” Pell said as he sat next to a Vatican spokesman. “I am innocent of the charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

Australian police served the cardinal’s legal representatives hours earlier in Melbourne and have yet to reveal the details of the charges or the ages of the complainants.

At the Vatican, Pell, usually outspoken, stuck to a script, adding that he had kept Francis regularly informed over recent months and as recently as “a day or so ago.”

“We talked about my need to take leave to clear my name,” said Pell, who in the past has insisted that he had the full backing of the pope. “So I’m very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.”

As the faithful gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica to hear Francis celebrate a special outdoor Mass in honor of St. Peter and St. Paul, Pell concluded, “The news of these charges strengthens my resolve — strengthens my resolve — and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and to return here back to Rome.”

But it is not clear whether Pell will be coming back.

The pope has achieved global popularity for his emphasis on inclusiveness and mercy, but he has come under increased criticism for the slow pace and reported internal resistance to efforts to safeguard victims of sexual abuse by priests and protect children in the church.

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