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Top Pope adviser arrives in Australia to face sex charges

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Posted at 6:04 AM, Jul 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-10 07:04:20-04

Cardinal George Pell, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic and a key adviser to Pope Francis, has touched down in his native Australia to face charges of historic sexual abuse at a court hearing on July 26.

Returning to Sydney two weeks after the charges were leveled against him, the Holy See's third-ranking figure has taken a leave of absence from the Vatican to defend himself at Melbourne Magistrates Court at the end of the month.

Australia's Victoria police have yet to release a list of charges against the 76-year-old cardinal and have not disclosed any information about alleged victims. Authorities only said there were multiple charges and "multiple complainants."

Upon his arrival on Monday, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney noted Pell's return "should not be a surprise" as Pell had said last month when he was informed of the alleged offenses in Rome that he would return to his homeland to "vigorously defend himself and clear his name."

Two white vehicles were waiting to whisk the cardinal away at a separate side exit of the airport. He did not answer any questions.

Pell, who served as the Archbishop for Sydney and Melbourne before taking becoming the Vatican's secretariat for the economy in 2014, has vehemently denied the allegations.

"All along, I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name," Pell said at his news conference in Rome last month.

Pell, one of eight cardinals tasked by Pope Francis with studying reform in the Catholic Church, said the Holy Father granted him leave to return to Australia to fight the charges.

Shortly after the charges were announced, the Vatican issued a statement praising Pell's work in combating sex abuse -- including cooperating with authorities and introducing systems in order to help protect and assist minors in Australia.

"The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system, which will have to decide the merits of the questions raised," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said. "At the same time, it's important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse against minors."

But the fact that such a high-ranking Catholic leader was charged is likely to be a black eye on the church, which has seen its reputation seriously damaged after revelations of decades of abuse and coverups around the world.

And Pell is no stranger to the scandal.

During a 2013 government inquiry, he denied covering up abuse committed by priests when he served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001 but acknowledged his late predecessor had destroyed documents to protect priests.

That investigation found 7% of priests in Australia were accused of abusing children, from 1950 until 2015. At least 1,880 alleged perpetrators were identified and 4,444 victims came forward.