30/06/2017 9:10 PM AEST | Updated 30/06/2017 9:10 PM AEST

Pell: Shock Charges Send Shockwaves Around The World

But he's been a controversial figure in Australia for decades

Remo Casilli / Reuters
Cardinal George Pell attends a news conference at the Vatican, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Cardinal George Pell is no stranger to controversy, or a fight.

A divisive amongst Australian Catholics, he attracts fierce support and equally intense opposition both at home and abroad.

But now the man who, until Thursday, was effectively the third most powerful man in the Holy See is flying home to Australia to engage in the fight of his life: defending himself against historical sexual abuse charges levelled at hime by Victoria police.

The news sent shockwaves through the cloistered halls of the Vatican, and around the world.

A man who could be Pope has to answer criminal charges in Australia. Pell has become the most senior Catholic in modern history to face such charges.

Remo Casilli / Reuters
Cardinal George Pell attends news conference at the Vatican, June 29, 2017.

The cardinal strenuously maintains his innocence, and the charges — the detail of which are not yet known — are still to be tested in court. Pell has also chosen to face those charges in Australia, rather than claim the diplomatic immunity afforded to him by the Vatican.

He's a man who casts a long (and, according to his detractors, a cold) shadow over the Church in Australia.

His rise in the church bureaucracy has been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse coverups and negligence.

Those accusations mounted last year, when Pell severely damaged his standing as a moral leader during testimony at Australia's long running sex abuse royal commission.

Appearing by video link from Rome due to ill health, Pell said that while he was a church official in Victoria, abuse committed by Gerald Ridsdale — Australia's worst pedophile priest — "was a sad story that wasn't of much interest to me".

Giulio Origlia via Getty Images
Cardinal George Pell leaves the opening session of the Synod on the themes of family at Synod Hall on October 5, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The main themes of this Synod of Bishops are 'The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world'.

He tried to wind it back days later, telling the commission he messed up. Survivors of abuse left the hearing angry and disheartened.

It's true that as he rose in the Church, Pell was among the first to enact a response to child sexual abuse, with his Melbourne Response in 1996.

But the scheme has been lambasted by survivors, in part because it discouraged people from going to the police.

Pell told the commission in 2014 he set up the response after Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett called him and said ''now you clean this thing up and there won't be a royal commission''.

The George Pell I have known is a very fine man indeed.Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott

He has his supporters too. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described him as a "very fine man," while the Holy See pointed to Pell's open and repeated condemnation "as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors.''

The cardinal came out swinging when news of the charges broke, telling journalists in Rome he had been subject to "leaks to the media" and a "relentless character assassination".

"News of these charges strengthens my resolve, strengthens my resolve," he said.

"And court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here back to Rome to work."

But it's unclear if Pell, whose shadow has now fallen on a Vatican sensitive to ongoing accusations of scandal and abuse, will be able to return to his job.

The former Melbourne and Sydney archbishop is due to appear in a Melbourne court on July 26.