Top cardinal, aide to Pope Francis charged with sexual assault

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26:  Cardinal George Pell arrives for his appearance at the Royal Commission on March 26, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Cardinal Pell is facing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney to answer questions about whether he was involved in compensation discussions related to the case of John Ellis who was sexually abused by Father Aidan Duggan.Cardinal Pell will soon move to Rome to undertake a senior role at the Vatican.  (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)
Caption
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26: Cardinal George Pell arrives for his appearance at the Royal Commission on March 26, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Cardinal Pell is facing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney to answer questions about whether he was involved in compensation discussions related to the case of John Ellis who was sexually abused by Father Aidan Duggan.Cardinal Pell will soon move to Rome to undertake a senior role at the Vatican. (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)

Credit: Don Arnold

Credit: Don Arnold

Australia's Catholic cardinal and top aide to Pope Francis, George Pell, is facing charges of sexual assault, according to authorities in the state of Victoria.

It's the latest high-profile case in the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic church in countries around the world for more than two decades now.

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"Cardinal Pell has been charged on summons, and he is required to appear at the Melbourne Magistrates' Court" on July 18, deputy police commissioner Shane Patton said, according to Patton's statement posted on the Archdiocese of Sydney's website.

Patton said Pell, 76, has been treated the same as anyone else facing the same charges.

“Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore, it's important that the process is allowed to run its natural course,” Patton said.

Pell, at a news conference in Rome on Thursday, said he had been the victim of "relentless character assassination."

"I'm innocent of these charges, they are false," Pell said. "The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

The alleged victims have not been named, and police have not released any information on the case except to say there are "multiple complainants."

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Pell is a top advisor to Pope Francis and the third-ranking official at the Vatican.

He's taking a leave of absence to fight the charges, and is expected to return to Australia to battle the allegations, the Archdiocese of Sydney said in the statement on its website.

More than four dozen Catholic bishops worldwide and dozens of priests have been accused of sexually assaulting children in alleged incidents dating back more than 50 years.