Cardinal George Pell has rejected accusations against him of "multiple" historical sex offences amid charges laid against him by Victoria Police on Thursday.
In an address to media in Rome, Australia's most senior Catholic said he is looking forward to appearing in court and that he is "innocent of these charges".
"These matters have been under investigation now for two years. There have been leaks to the media. There has been relentless character assassination. A relentless character assassination," he said.
"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."
Pell -- formerly a priest in Ballarat and Archbishop of Melbourne, and now a high-ranking official in Vatican City as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy -- also said he has spoken to Pope Francis about granting him leave to return to Australia and clear his name.
"So I'm very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia. I've spoken to my lawyers about when this will be necessary. And I've spoken to my doctors about the best way to achieve this," he said.
"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 and then return here back to Rome to work."
Police confirmed last year that they were investigating complaints related to Pell regarding alleged offences in Ballarat in the 1970s. Pell has strenuously denied involvement in claims previously levelled at him, including over his alleged role in covering up paedophile clergy in the Catholic church.
"There has been relentless character assassination. A relentless character assassination."Cardinal George Pell
At a press conference in Melbourne on Thursday, police did not take any questions.
"The charges were today served on Cardinal Pell's legal representatives in Melbourne and they have been lodged also at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences. There are multiple complainants relating to those charges," Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said.
"It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have obviously been tested in any court yet. Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore, it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course."
At the press conference in Rome, the Holy See also commented on the charges and voiced its support for Pell.
"The Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed against Cardinal George Pell for decades-old actions that have been attributed to him," a spokesperson for the Holy See said.
"The Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pell's honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration and, in particular, for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals, the C9.
"The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system, which will have to decide the merits of the questions raised. 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."
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