By Nicole Winfield and Kristen Gelineau

A SENIOR Vatican cardinal charged in Australia with multiple historical sexual offences has denied the accusations and denounced what he called a “relentless character assassination”.

Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’s chief financial adviser and Australia’s most senior Catholic, said he would take a leave of absence as the Catholic Church’s finance tsar and would return to Australia to fight the charges.

Cardinal Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official charged in the church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal.

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton, of Victoria state police, said officers have summonsed the cardinal to appear at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court to face multiple charges of historical sexual assault offences.

Mr Patton gave no other details of the allegations. Cardinal Pell was ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18.

Cardinal Pell, 76, has for years faced allegations that he mismanaged cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, but more recently, he became the focus of a sex abuse investigation himself, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview him.

It is unclear what allegations the charges relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said Cardinal Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s when he was a senior priest in Melbourne.

Mr Patton told reporters in Melbourne that none of the allegations against Cardinal Pell had been tested in any court, adding: “Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process.”

The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised “zero tolerance” policy about sex abuse.

The charges also complicate Francis’s financial reform efforts at the Vatican, which were already strained by Cardinal Pell’s repeated clashes with the Italian-dominated bureaucracy.

Last week, one of Cardinal Pell’s top allies, the Vatican’s auditor general, resigned without explanation two years into a five-year term, raising questions about whether the reform effort was doomed.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pope Francis had learned with “regret” of the charges and had granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence to defend himself. He said the Vatican’s financial reforms would continue in his absence.

Cardinal Pell’s actions as archbishop have come under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the nation’s highest form of inquiry – has found shocking levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that seven per cent of Catholic priests had been accused of sexually abusing children over the several decades.

Last year, Cardinal Pell acknowledged during evidence to the commission the church had made “enormous mistakes”

in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests over centuries.

He conceded he had erred by often believing priests over those who alleged abuse, and he vowed to help end a rash of suicides among church abuse victims in his home town of Ballarat.

Francis appointed Cardinal Pell in 2014 to a five-year term to head the Vatican’s new economy secretariat, giving him broad rein to control all economic, administrative, personnel and procurement functions of the Holy See, but he currently has more of an oversight role.

There are fears he may not receive a fair trial due to the amount of publicity surrounding the case.

Professor Gideon Boas, Professor of Law at La Trobe University in Melbourne, told The Guardian: “Just because Pell happens to be a very senior member of the Catholic church, it does not mean he will not receive fair and impartial treatment, or that a court wouldn’t be capable of delivering a verdict based on the evidence placed before them in the same way it does in many high-profile cases.”

Fellow law expert, Donald Rothwell, of the Australian National University recently said any charges against Cardinal Pell charges would be of concern to the Pope, given his status in the Vatican.

He added in an interview: “So if the Pope was to say, ‘Well look, Cardinal Pell, I’d like you to return to Australia and mount a defence’, I’m sure Cardinal Pell would probably follow that instruction.

“In the case of someone like Cardinal Pell, the sway that the Pope and the church has over him is much greater than the ordinary citizen.”

The Catholic Church is not the only religious institution in which senior figures have faced sex abuse allegations. Cardinal Pell’s charges follows a damning report into Church of England’s response to abuse claims involving a bishop.

Last week a review found the church had colluded over sex abuse allegations relating to the disgraced former Bishop of Gloucester Peter Ball.