Cardinal George Pell talks during a news conference in connection with the presentation of the new president of the Vatican Bank in 2014. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

SYDNEY — Like many of their brethren around the world, Catholics in Australia have been rocked in recent years by evidence of systemic child abuse in the church.

One big question remains, though, for the country's 5 million Catholics: Was one of their top clerics complicit?

Last month, George Pell, now a cardinal and senior Vatican official, was questioned in Rome by Australian police after public allegations in July by two former students that he had inappropriately touched them in a swimming pool back in the 1970s.

“The cardinal does not wish to cause any distress to any victim of abuse,” his office said in July. “However, claims that he has sexually abused anyone, in any place, at any time in his life are totally untrue and completely wrong.”

Pell had faced earlier allegations that he had failed to act on reports of child abuse when he was an up-and-coming priest in the 1970s in the regional city of Ballarat.

Pell was approached by a student at the local Catholic school, St. Patrick’s, in 1974, according to evidence given to a government inquiry. “We’ve got to do something about what’s going on at St. Pat’s,” the student, Timothy Green, allegedly said. “Brother Dowlan is touching little boys.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pell replied, according to Green, and walked off.

Edward Dowlan, a teacher at the school, was later convicted of molesting 31 children and given two six-year jail terms.

Pell told the inquiry he had no memory of the conversation with Green but acknowledged he had heard rumors at the time that Dowlan was engaging in sexual misconduct. “In the light of my present understandings, although, I would concede I should have done more,” he told the inquiry.

It wasn’t the only allegation of Pell ignoring pleas for help. Pell shared a house in Ballarat around the same time with a fellow priest who later emerged as one of the church’s most notorious pedophiles. When a young victim of the priest told Pell he was being abused, Pell, by his own admission, did nothing. “It was a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” he told the inquiry last year.

Advice from the inquiry's lawyers, which was made public last week, argues that Pell should have responded more aggressively to complaints about the teachers. But it places more blame on the local bishop for shielding pedophile priests from public exposure.

An adverse finding by the inquiry, which is due to compete its work next year, would be hugely damaging to Pell's reputation.

The Ballarat Catholic Church has acknowledged that four priests and six members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Catholic order, in the city of 93,500 were preying on children from the 1950s to the mid-1990s, and that church officials knew what was happening and didn’t stop it.

Pell was born in the city and ordained there in 1966. He went on to a glittering church career. In 2013 he was one of eight cardinals appointed by Pope Francis to work out how to overhaul the administrative structures of the church, which are known as the Roman curia. The following year he was placed in charge of the Vatican’s economic affairs.

The allegations have split prominent Australian Catholics. Conservatives say Pell is unfairly being held responsible for the church’s broader problems. Liberals argue that his inaction as a young priest is an example of why church abuse was so prevalent.

Pell, who was the archbishop of Australia’s two biggest cities from 1996 to 2014, says he is the victim of a smear campaign.

His office says that he became the first Catholic bishop, in 1996, to implement formal assistance to victims of clerical sexual abuse in the church. It says he has apologized to victims of church sexual abuse many times and has met some victims personally.