Cardinal George Pell has vowed to return to Australia to fight historical sexual assault allegations, saying: "I'm innocent of these charges – they are false".
Speaking from the Vatican after Victoria Police announced Cardinal Pell would be summonsed on multiple charges, Australia's most senior Catholic said he was the victim of a "relentless character assassination".
He revealed he has been granted a leave of absence by Pope Francis from his duties within the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy to return to Australia in an attempt to clear his name.
"These matters have been under investigation now for two years. There have been leaks to the media. There's been relentless character assassination," Cardinal Pell said.
"For more than a month (there have been) claims that a decision about whether to lay charges was imminent. I'm looking forward to having my day in court. I'm innocent of these charges - they are false.
"The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me. I've kept Pope Francis - the Holy Father – regularly informed during these long months and I have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week, most recently a day or so ago.
"We talked about the need to take leave and clear my name. I am very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia. I've spoken to my lawyers about when this will be necessary and I’ve spoken to my doctors about the best way to achieve this.
“All along I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here back to Rome to work."
Earlier Victoria Police confirmed Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges for historical sexual assault offences. The charges relate to multiple claims and multiple complainants.
In a statement the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said Cardinal Pell “strenuously denied all allegations".
'Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else'
The charges were served on Cardinal Pell's legal representatives in Melbourne and lodged at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Thursday.
Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton stressed that none of the allegations had been tested in court yet. Cardinal Pell is due to face a Melbourne court on July 18.
"Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore, it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course."
Commissioner Patton said Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as any other defendant in the process.
"During the course of the investigation in relation to Cardinal Pell, there has been a lot of reporting in the media and speculation about the process that has been involved in the investigation and also the charging.
“I want to be perfectly clear, the process and procedures that are being followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offences whenever we investigate them."
No extradition treaty with the Vatican
Cardinal Pell is currently at the Vatican overseeing its finances within the Secretariat for the Economy.
Australia does not have an extradition treaty with the Vatican, potentially complicating matters.
It is so far unclear just which allegations Cardinal Pell has been charged with.
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Patton did not detail the abuse allegations at his press conference earlier on Thursday.
"I am not in a position to provide further details on the charges," he said, adding that Victoria Police would not be providing further comment.
Church abuse victims welcome court case
Victims’ rights group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the outcome of the Victoria Police investigation is an important development.
"SNAP, the Survivors Network, wants to thank the Victoria Police, who took the time to listen to those who came forward with allegations," the group said in a statement.
The group said it looked forward to seeing Pope Francis' response as the head of the Catholic Church.
The Blue Knot Foundation, which represents Australian adults who experienced childhood trauma, said the charges against Cardinal Pell were a powerful message to victims of abuse.
"It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications, or standing," spokeswoman Dr Pam Stavropoulos said.
"As well as the impacts of the abuse itself, countless survivors of child sexual abuse have struggled with the silence and disbelief of society that adults and respected public figures can be perpetrators of the criminal act of sexual abuse of children.
"The charging of George Pell is an enormously important step for community awareness which has been hard fought for and which cannot now be lost."
Victorian Minister: We can’t pre-judge any individual case
Victorian government minister Martin Foley said Cardinal George Pell deserves the presumption of innocence.
"We know that the Catholic Church in particular has a sorry record and needs to overcome this," he said.
"We can't pre-judge any individual case. We need to make sure that anyone facing charges is given the presumption of innocence."
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher has said Cardinal Pell, who has co-operated with multiple police, parliamentary and royal commission investigations, is the victim of relentless character attacks.
Last year, three members of Victoria Police travelled to Rome and interviewed Cardinal Pell regarding allegations of sexual assault.