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Cardinal George Pell: Sexual Abuse Charges Against Me Are False

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's start this story by noting that Cardinal George Pell, top official at the Vatican, is considered innocent until proven guilty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE PELL: I'm looking forward, finally, to having my day in court. I'm innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.

INSKEEP: George Pell made that statement after hearing from Shane Patton, a police official in the Australian state of Victoria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANE PATTON: Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offenses.

INSKEEP: Historical offenses. Pell has faced assorted allegations of abuse dating back as far as the 1970s and 1980s. He was in Australia then. He's a senior Vatican official now, the highest-ranking Catholic prelate to face sexual assault charges. We're joined via Skype by John Allen, editor of Crux, which focuses on the Vatican and the Catholic Church. John, welcome back to the program.

JOHN ALLEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So Cardinal Pell said he's finally having his day in court. Had he been dealing with these allegations for a long time?

ALLEN: Yes. Actually, this began more than a decade ago, really, with accusations that Cardinal Pell, when he was a priest and bishop both in Melbourne and Sydney, had mishandled abuse allegations against others. So he has been in the eye of the storm of the church's sexual-abuse controversies for some time. These allegations against him personally - that is, charges that he himself had committed abuse - are more recent, but they have been around now for a couple of years.

In fact, Pope Francis was asked about them last year when he was returning from Poland for a trip there and on the papal plane on the way back to Rome. He was asked what he planned to do about them. And his response was, I am going to let the justice system speak, and then I will speak. So yes, Steve, this - these accusations and the cloud around Cardinal Pell have been developing for some time.

INSKEEP: And Cardinal Pell has been climbing through the Catholic hierarchy, even as the allegations have surrounded him?

ALLEN: That's correct. It should be said that during his final years, when he was the archbishop of Sydney, there was a great deal of controversy that made it - in the eyes of some, anyway - a bit of a surprise that newly-elected Pope Francis brought him to Rome to be his financial-cleanup man - to head his new Secretariat for the Economy.

But on the other hand, I think it is probably fair to say that Cardinal Pell's power inside the Vatican peaked probably a year and a half ago. And since then, he has had his wings clipped a couple of different times by the pontiff. That is not directly related to the charges of sexual abuse against him. That more has to do with internal Vatican politics. But clearly, these accusations don't help.

INSKEEP: Well, Pope Francis, as you know very well, was seen as the man who was going to change the narrative for the church and reach out to new people in new ways and move the conversation on from the sexual-abuse scandals that had lasted for years and years and years. What does this mean for Pope Francis? And how is he responding, so far as you know?

ALLEN: Well, we know that - in terms of his response, this morning when Cardinal Pell held his press conference in Rome - and you played a bit of that that sound - a statement from the Vatican was released indicating that Pope Francis wanted to thank Cardinal Pell for his honesty as a Vatican official, for his collaboration.

And while he respects the Australian justice system and will allow it to take its course, the statement indicated that the Vatican also wanted to note that Cardinal Pell has repeatedly stressed his abhorrence at sexual abuse, that he has been a supporter of a new institution in the Vatican the pope has created called the Commission for the Protection of Minors to sort of be the tip of the spear for the reform effort, and that while he was a bishop in Australia, he played a lead role in adopting policies on sexual abuse.

You know, in terms of what this means, Steve, for Pope Francis, in the - in this sexual abuse mess, I don't know that the Pell situation in itself right now today necessarily means a great deal because, of course, an indictment is different than a finding of guilt.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ALLEN: But it certainly does raise the broader question of whether Pope Francis has finished the clean-up effort and where things go from here.

INSKEEP: Is it going to be hard to suspend judgment - just very briefly - is it going to be hard to suspend judgment just because so many other people have been found guilty?

ALLEN: Well, I think certainly in Australia - actually, some legal observers in Australia have raised the question of whether Cardinal Pell can get a fair trial because public opinion has been so thoroughly poisoned - not just by the drumbeat against Pell but you're right, the broader narrative of the sexual-abuse crisis in the church. I do think that's going to be one of the key legal issues going forward. On the other hand, if he were to be exonerated and relatively quickly, it could actually end up strengthening his position in the Vatican, which, as I say, has of late been somewhat compromised.

INSKEEP: John Allen, editor of Crux. Thanks very much.

ALLEN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.