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 earlier Thursday.
Advocates for victims of child abuse said that allowing Pell to face charges in Australia, rather than keeping him inside the Vatican City’s walls, was already 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 ushered in a new era in one of the most painful chapters in modern Catholic history.
Speaking to reporters in the Vatican, 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 overhauling the church’s antiquated and opaque finances.
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…
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