Australia’s most senior member of the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell, was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault on Wednesday, making him the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever incur the charges. Pell is also the chief financial adviser to Pope Francis, whose “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual assault has been accused of lacking follow-through and failing to curb the church’s longstanding legacy of abuse.
On Wednesday, Australia’s Victoria Police said multiple complainants had come forward against Pell, but did not provide any further detail regarding the nature of the alleged assaults. The charges are considered “historic sexual offenses,” indicating that they occurred many years ago. According to the Associated Press, two men have previously accused Pell, then a senior priest in Melbourne, of touching them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s. Pell, whose religious career spans more than 50 years, has consistently denied the allegations.
“I’d just like to restate my innocence,” Pell told reporters in May, amid rumors that he would soon be charged. He added that he stood behind his statements to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse—a government-authorized inquiry established in 2013. At his testimony in February 2016, Pell was asked to provide evidence of his role in the church’s sexual abuse scandal in Australia, in which officials admittedly dismissed allegations of assault to protect clergy members. Pell, who is based in Rome, testified via video-link, arguing that his declining health prevented him from attending in person.