Cardinal George Pell has said that he is innocent of sexual abuse charges made against him, saying he was “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,” he said at a press conference in the Vatican.

Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said that Pope Francis had granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence from his position as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy so he could work on his defence. Cardinal Pell, Mr Burke added, will not participate in any public liturgies while his case is being considered.

“These matters have been under investigation now for two years,” Cardinal Pell said. “There’s been relentless character assassination and for more than a month claims that a decision on whether to lay charges was imminent.”

Without relating the number of charges or incidents, police in Australia’s Victoria state announced that charges had been filed against the cardinal and that he has been called to appear in court on July 18.

Victoria Police deputy commissioner Shane Patton told reporters: “Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges. None of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have obviously been tested in any court yet.”

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