Vatican finance chief George Pell is being investigated in relation to child abuse allegations. Police in his home country of Australia have been looking into allegations against the cardinal for more than a year.
Victoria state police confirmed on Thursday that they had referred the allegations of child abuse against the cardinal to the public prosecutor's office for advice on whether to press charges.
The allegations, dating from the 1970s to the 1990s, were detailed on Wednesday in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) report which included interviews with alleged victims.
"That's a matter that we investigated and still are investigating," Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton told Melbourne radio station 3AW. The allegations included groping at a swimming pool in Ballarat where Pell, now Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, had grown up and worked.
Ashton added that investigators were waiting to hear back from the prosecutor's office and that detectives could be sent to the Vatican to interview Pell.
Allegations strongly denied
In a statement issued by his office on Wednesday, the 75-year-old had categorically rejected all the allegations in the ABC program and accused the broadcaster of a "scandalous smear campaign" against him.
"While the Cardinal in no way wishes to cause any harm to those making allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against him, the simple fact is that they are wrong," the statement said, adding that he would continue to cooperate with any investigation.
"Trial by media benefits no one," Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said.
The confirmation of the police investigation comes to light months after Pell testified at an Australian government Royal Commission inquiry into child sexual abuse and said the church had made "catastrophic" choices when it refused to believe abused children, transferred abusive priests and relied too much on counseling to solve the problem. Shortly thereafter, he met with sexual abuse survivors who had traveled to Rome.
Pell had previously been accused of historic sex abuse claims in 2002, but was later cleared of wrongdoing.
Pope Francis had appointed Pell to take charge of the Vatican's finances in 2014 in order to make them more transparent.
se/msh (Reuters, dpa, AFP)