At the Vatican, Cardinal Pell, usually outspoken, stuck to a script, adding that he had kept Francis regularly informed over recent months and as recently as âa day or so ago.â
âWe talked about my need to take leave to clear my name,â said Cardinal Pell, who in the past has insisted that he had the full backing of the pope. âSo Iâm very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.â
As the faithful gathered outside St. Peterâs Basilica to hear Francis celebrate a special outdoor Mass in honor of St. Peter and St. Paul, Cardinal Pell concluded, âThe news of these charges strengthens my resolve â strengthens my resolve â and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and to return here back to Rome.â
But it is not clear whether Cardinal Pell will be coming back.
The charges come as many of Cardinal Pellâs fellow prelates in the College of Cardinals have arrived in Rome from around the world for the elevation of five new cardinals by Francis on Wednesday. The pope has achieved global popularity for his emphasis on inclusiveness and mercy, but he has come under increased criticism for the slow pace and reported internal resistance to efforts to safeguard victims of sexual abuse by priests and protect children in the church.
Last month, the pope, who had promised âzero toleranceâ for perpetrators of abuse, acknowledged a 2,000-case backlog of clerical sex abuse cases after the resignation in protest of an abuse survivor from a sex abuse advisory commission that the pope established in March 2014. A separate tribunal proposed by the pope to determine the complicity of bishops in covering up for offending priests was absorbed â critics say diluted â into pre-existing Vatican departments.
The pope also angered advocates of sex abuse victims in February when, in keeping with his vision for a more merciful church, he reduced sanctions against some priests convicted of pedophilia. The Vatican has also been criticized as retreating into a bunker mentality when accusations were made against its own.
Speaking immediately after Cardinal Pell, the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, expressed respect for Australiaâs justice system but also struck a defensive tone, saying the Vatican had learned of the news of the charges with regret.
âIt is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable acts of abuse committed against minors,â he said. But despite the cardinalâs stated intention to clear his name and return to Rome, some Vatican observers sensed in Mr. Burkeâs statement a distinct note of farewell.
âIt seemed very much like a goodbye,â said Robert Mickens, a longtime Vatican observer and editor at La Croix International, a Catholic website. âI suspect this is the end of George Pell in the Vatican.â
Mr. Burke noted in his statement that âThe Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pellâs honesty during his three years at work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration,â and made special reference to âhis energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sectors as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals.â
Cardinal Pellâs membership in the nine-member council was a sign of his influence in the Vatican, where he was responsible for cleaning up the churchâs muddled finances. Along the way, he made no shortage of enemies, especially among the deeply entrenched establishment in the Curia, the Vaticanâs bureaucratic structure.
His opponents inside the Vatican seized on his hours of testimony in February 2016 via video link from a Rome hotel to Australiaâs Royal Commission as evidence that he was too flawed to carry out financial overhaul. His supporters suggested, conspiratorially, that the charges against him were connected to his powerful Vatican enemies.
Some Vatican analysts suggested that the announcement of the charges on Thursday, when so many cardinals were in Rome and when the pope was holding a special public Mass, seemed calibrated for maximum impact. The Vatican seemed just as eager to discuss something else.
Neither Cardinal Pell nor Mr. Burke, the Vatican spokesman, addressed the pain of the complainants and ignored a reporter shouting, âWhat about the alleged victims in this case?â But Mr. Burke advised the gathered reporters that âthe cardinal will from now on not be going to public liturgical events so we shouldnât be looking for him today at the Mass for St. Peter and St. Paul.â
A statement from the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said that Archbishop Denis Hart was âaware of the significance of the decision to charge Cardinal Pellâ and said that the two men had been friends for more than than 50 years.
âIt is a matter of public record that Cardinal Pell addressed the evil of sexual abuse in the Church on becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996,â it said, adding that âin the interests of fairness and due processâ Archbishop Hart would not be commenting further on the case.