Sydney: Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic, has been charged with historic child sex offences, police said Thursday. Pell, who as the Vatican's finance chief is the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to face such charges, was interviewed in Rome by Australian police last October over the allegations which he strongly denies.
"Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences," Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters.
"There are multiple complainants relating to those charges."
Pell "strenuously" denies all allegations of historic child sex offences and will return home to clear his name, Catholic officials have said.
Patton said the 76-year-old is required to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 for a hearing.
No details of the charges were given and Patton would not take any questions, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.
Local media said Pell is expected to return to face the charges. Australia does not have an extradition agreement with the Vatican but has one with Italy.
Australia could also seek Pell's extradition via Interpol if he does not voluntarily return for the hearing, international law expert at the Australian National University Don Rothwell told AFP.
The announcement coincides with the final stages of a long-running national inquiry into responses to child sex abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
Pell has appeared before the royal commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link, during which he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
The inquiry released data in February that showed seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but the allegations were never investigated.
Some 4,444 alleged incidents of paedophilia were reported to church authorities and in some dioceses, more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators, the inquiry heard.
The average age of the victims at the time was 10 for girls and 11 for boys.
Of the 1,880 alleged perpetrators, 90 percent were men. The St John of God Brothers religious order was the worst, with just over 40 percent of members accused of abuse.
Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966 before returning to Australia in 1971 and rose to become the nation's top Catholic official.
He had been accused of historic sex abuse claims when he was the Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing, and had denied all the allegations.
The cardinal left for the Vatican in 2014 after being hand-picked by Pope Francis to make the church's finances more transparent.
Pope Francis said last year when asked about allegations against the cardinal that "we must avoid a media verdict, a verdict based on gossip".
The Pell charges followed the announcement Wednesday that the Pope had defrocked an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors, reversing an earlier decision to reduce his punishment.