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Cardinal George Pell says he is taking a leave of absence as the Vatican’s finance czar after Australian police charged him with multiple counts of “historical” sexual assault. Pell says he’s going back to Australia to fight the charges. (June 29)
AP

MELBOURNE, Australia – Silent but defiant, Cardinal George Pell made his first court appearance in Australia on Wednesday on charges of sexual abuse, vowing through his lawyer to fight the allegations that have rocked Rome and threatened the pope’s image as a crusader against abusive clergy.

Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, is accused of sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria, making him the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis. Details of the charges have yet to be released to the public, though police have described them as “historical” sexual assault offenses — meaning crimes that occurred years ago.

Pell has not yet entered a plea. But on Wednesday, his lawyer told the court that the 76-year-old cardinal plans to formally plead not guilty at a future court date.

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“For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has,” lawyer Robert Richter told the court.

Pell entered the small courtroom dressed in a black suit, face devoid of expression as he took a seat behind his legal team. He said nothing during the hearing, or to the hordes of journalists who swarmed around him as he left the courthouse.

The hearing itself lasted just minutes and was remarkably routine. Yet the image of one of the most…