Australian cleric and one of the world's top Catholic officials, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged over "multiple" historical sex offences, Victoria Police said on Thursday.
Police said Pell — formerly a priest in Ballarat and Archbishop of Melbourne, and now a high-ranking official in Vatican City as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy — had been accused by multiple people of historical sex assault offences.
Police confirmed last year that they were investigating complaints related to Pell regarding alleged offences in Ballarat in the 1970s. Pell has strenuously denied involvement in claims previously levelled at him, including over his alleged role in covering up paedophile clergy in the Catholic church.
"Today, Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences. Cardinal Pell has been charged on summons and he is required to appear at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 18 July this year for a filing hearing," Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said at a media conference.
"The charges were today served on Cardinal Pell's legal representatives in Melbourne and they have been lodged also at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences. There are multiple complainants relating to those charges."
In a statement later on Thursday, Pell said he would return to Australia, "as soon as possible", pending "approval by his doctors".
Police did not take any questions at the press conference, and said they would not be providing further updates to the investigation.
"It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have obviously been tested in any court yet. Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore, it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course," Patton said.
"Preserving the integrity of that process is essential to us all and so for Victoria Police, it is important that it is allowed to go through unhindered and allowed to see natural justice is afforded to all the parties involved, including Cardinal Pell and the complainants in this matter.
"Because of that, I am not in a position to take any questions here this morning and I am moving forward, Victoria Police won't be making any further comments in respect of this matter."
Pell has been slammed for his actions while in leadership roles in the Catholic Church, while child sexual abuse was rampant. During a recent Royal Commission into child abuse, Pell admitted he was "very strongly inclined to accept the denial" of priests who disputed allegations of abuse made against them, and said he did not remember if any children came to him personally with complaints.
"I don't remember any such thing happening and therefore I don't believe it did but my memory is sometimes fallible," he said in 2016.
Pell controversially gave video evidence from Rome instead of appearing in-person in Australia for the Royal Commission, arguing he was too ill to travel.