ROME — The Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal ensnared one of Pope Francis’s top lieutenants on Thursday, underlining the halting progress the reformist pontiff has made in addressing decades of abuse by the clergy, even as Cardinal George Pell declared himself innocent of the charges against him.
Pell, one of the most powerful officials in the Vatican, said he would return to his native Australia to fight multiple charges of sexual assault. He became the highest-ranking Vatican official to be formally accused by law enforcement when Australian police charged him Thursday.
Advocates for victims of child abuse said that allowing Pell to face charges in Australia, rather than keeping him inside the walls of Vatican City, was a major step for a church that might have shielded him in earlier years. But they also said that the cardinal’s ability to remain in his post until Thursday, despite controversy about his role in the Australian church’s years of abuse, was a sign that Francis had not fully reckoned with one of the most painful chapters in modern Catholic history.
The case pulls Francis’s papacy back into the abuse scandals that have battered the church for nearly two decades and led to demands for sweeping changes on monitoring, selecting and training the clergy. In the United States and elsewhere, groups continue to press for full accountability within the Catholic Church for alleged abuse of children and others going back generations. Many recommendations of a flagship reform commission impaneled by Francis, meanwhile, have been endorsed by the pope, then ignored by the Vatican bureaucracy.
Speaking to reporters at the Vatican, a subdued Pell denounced “relentless character assassination” in the media.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” said the 76-year-old cardinal, who until Thursday was in charge of reforming the church’s antiquated and opaque finances.
Australian police earlier Thursday announced that Pell faces multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offenses,” that nation’s term for charges related to past conduct.
Australian officials did not offer details of the alleged crimes, saying that Pell has a right to due process.
Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic prelate, has faced questions for years about his role in the Australian church’s staggering scale of sexual abuse. But he had never been directly charged.
He is scheduled to appear before a Melbourne court on July 18.
The Vatican, meanwhile, said that it learned of the charges “with regret” and that Francis appreciated the cardinal’s honesty and commitment during his three years in the Holy See.
Spokesman Greg Burke noted in the statement to reporters that Pell has “repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable” acts of abuse against minors.
Francis has a mixed record on dealing with abuse, according to survivors and their advocates. He has done far more than his predecessors to try to prevent further crimes, but some critics say they are disappointed that he has sometimes appeared reluctant to punish priests for past abuses.
“The pope certainly does understand the effects of abuse, the horrible damage it does to victims, and he has made an effort. But on the other hand, we haven’t seen an enormous amount of change,” said Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clergy sexual abuse who quit Francis’s commission in March because she was frustrated that few reforms were taking hold.
“I was more hopeful a few years ago than I was now, because I’ve seen close up how difficult it is to get change,” Collins said. “It can’t all be laid at the feet of Pope Francis.”
Defenders of Francis say he has held priests accountable, including as recently as last month, when he defrocked, or ejected from the priesthood, an Italian man, Mauro Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex abuse in an Italian court. The decision was announced Wednesday.
Still, perhaps emblematic of Francis’s record, the decision came only after he had reversed a previous move by Pope Benedict XVI to defrock the priest.
Pell’s decision to face charges in Australia was seen as another positive signal by some Vatican watchers.
“These facts pertain to abuses that have been too long underestimated by the church’s mentality, and it’s only fair that they should not be downplayed,” said Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican journalist
who has co-written a book with Francis.
The papal commission’s work also has been moving forward, if slowly. One current member said she felt pleased about the recommendations the panel has made on the training of priests and the treatment of abuse victims.
“I am optimistic. Perhaps I am wrong. But I came to the commission with hope that we will be able to learn lessons from historical survivors and then to improve the protection of minors every day,” said Catherine Bonnet, a French psychiatrist.
But critics said that the charges were a sign that significant change at the Vatican will come only through outside pressure, not from within.
“Given the decades, maybe the centuries, they have known about these child sex crimes and have done so very, very little to make changes, I don’t see them changing,” said Barbara Dorris, the managing director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an organization for victims. “I think what’s changing is society.”
Peter Saunders, a British abuse survivor who also served on the papal commission, agreed. The charges against Pell “will probably rock the Vatican like nothing else has ever done,” he said.
Pell, who entered the priesthood in 1966, was an adviser to the bishop of Ballarat through the 1970s before becoming the archbishop of Melbourne, then of Sydney.
One victim of sexual abuse in Ballarat, Peter Blenkiron, said Thursday that he did not feel any happiness about the charges against Pell, who oversaw education in the district in 1974, when Blenkiron was abused by a member of the church’s Christian Brothers order who was later convicted of pedophilia.
“There are so many families that have lost a parent and brothers and sisters. It is so raw in Ballarat,” he said.
Critics said they were unsure whether any changes will take hold.
“Francis has done some very important things,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, a journalist who has written about abuse. “But the fight against pedophilia is not his priority,”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels and Patrick reported from Sydney. Anthony Faiola in Miami, Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.