ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Police in Australia have formally charged that country's highest-ranking Catholic with what they term historical sex crimes. Cardinal George Pell is also the Vatican economy minister, and he's a key adviser to Pope Francis. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli now joins us on the line from Rome. Hi, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: And this is the first time someone so high up in the Vatican has been charged with sex abuse. This broke overnight in Rome. How did the cardinal react?
POGGIOLI: Well, he reacted really quickly. By 4:30 a.m. this morning we had all received an email from the Vatican press office saying that Pell would make a statement in the press room at 8:30. And, you know, he's known for his outspokenness. And his tone was defiant.
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GEORGE PELL: There have been leaks to the media. There's been relentless character assassination. 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.
POGGIOLI: When Pell had been archbishop of Melbourne and later of Sydney years ago, he had faced allegations that he had mishandled cases of clerical sex abuse by other priests. But over the last year or so, he himself has - became the focus of an investigation by Australian police. It's not clear from the charges announced today in Australia who made the complaints or their ages at the time of the alleged abuse.
SIEGEL: And what was the response from the Vatican itself and from the pope?
POGGIOLI: Well, the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, was sitting right next to the cardinal. And he read the official Vatican statement. He said the Vatican learned with regret of the charges, and that Pope Francis had been informed by Cardinal Pell and had granted him a leave of absence so he could defend himself. And during that period, Pell will not take part in any liturgical ceremonies. Burke added, the Holy See expresses respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised.
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GREG BURKE: At the same time, it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors.
POGGIOLI: Neither the cardinal nor the spokesman took any questions.
SIEGEL: Sylvia, in his more than four years now as pope, Francis has been widely praised both inside and outside the church for his efforts to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, for promising zero tolerance of sex abuse. What now?
POGGIOLI: He's in a really tough position. He had won lots of praise when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him on best practices to fight abuse within the Catholic Church and to protect children. But the commission lost credibility after two of its members, both abuse survivors, quit, frustrated over Vatican bureaucratic paralysis. One of them, Marie Collins, had cited what she called shameful resistance to change within the Vatican.
Francis was also criticized for his appointment of a bishop in Chile in 2015 who was accused by victims of having helped cover up for Chile's most notorious pedophile. And to make matters worse, Francis was later caught on videotape labeling parishioners who opposed that appointment as leftist and stupid. Now, he was asked about Cardinal Pell last year.
And Francis said, we must wait for the justice system and not make premature judgment or a judgment in the media. Once the justice system speaks, the pope said, I will speak. But in the meantime, a lot of Vatican watchers say that the fact that charges have been leveled against such a high-ranking Catholic prelate are a sign that when it comes to sex abuse allegations, law enforcement officials seem to be no longer so intimidated by or showing excessive deference to the Catholic Church.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thanks.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Robert.
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