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Top Vatican official to face sex abuse charges

TOP VATICAN OFFICIAL TO FACE SEX ABUSE CHARGES

Pope Francis granted a senior Catholic cardinal leave to return to his home country of Australia to fight sexual abuse charges, the Vatican said on Thursday.

"The Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed in Australia against Card. George Pell for decades-old actions that have been attributed to him," the statement by the Holy See Press Office read.

"Having become aware of the charges, Card. Pell, acting in full respect for civil laws, has decided to return to his country to face the charges against him," it added.

Cardinal Pell, 76, declared his innocence during a press conference at the Vatican just after Australian police charged him with multiple counts of sexual assault.

He complained about being a victim of "relentless character assassination" during a two-year investigation.

"I'm innocent of these charges, they are false," Pell told reporters. "The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

"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," he said.

"I'm looking forward finally to having my day in court," Pell added.

Cardinal Pell -- who is the highest ranking Catholic Church official to be charged in the institution's long-running sexual abuse scandal -- had been ordered to appear in court in Australia on July 18.

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