Cardinal George Pell, the third highest-ranking Vatican official, has long been accused of mishandling the church's response to clergy abuse scandals in his native Australia. Police in Victoria state now say he might have been one of the abusers. Australian police say the 76-year-old Vatican treasurer faces "multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences" involving more than one accuser, Reuters reports. Pell was ordered to appear in court in Melbourne on July 18 and the church says he plans to return to Australia to "clear his name"—if doctors allow him to travel. He "is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously," the Australian Catholic Church said in a statement.
Police have not disclosed details of the allegations involving Pell, who was a parish priest in Victoria in the 1970s before becoming Archbishop of Melbourne, the BBC reports. Pope Francis said last year that he would not comment on allegations involving his adviser until after "the justice system speaks." Brian Coyne, editor of Catholic forum Catholica, tells the Sydney Morning Herald that Pell has long been a divisive figure in the church and this is a "watershed moment for Catholicism." Pell was "moved to Sydney and elevated to the rank of cardinal to 'clean up the church in Australia,'" Coyne says. "The implications of this ... for the church internationally and Pope Francis scarcely bear thinking about." (Read more Cardinal George Pell stories.)