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In Australia, Cardinal George Pell To Face Sexual Assault Charges

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, an Australian court said Cardinal George Pell will face trial. He is accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse many years ago. He has pleaded not guilty. And while a judge approved some charges, she also dismissed others. Among all the stories of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell's story stands out because he is currently the treasurer of the Vatican. Christopher White is following this story. He joins us from New York on Skype. He is a reporter for the Catholic magazine Crux. Welcome to the program, sir.

CHRISTOPHER WHITE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Just focusing here on the charges that remain on the table - what do prosecutors say Cardinal Pell did years ago?

WHITE: Well, Steve, a lot of the details of this case have been kept under wraps, primarily to protect the victims here and the accusers. But these are, of course, charges that did take place decades ago in some cases. And these are minors that have accused George Pell, who is the senior-most figure in the Australian church, of serious, historical sexual abuse. And as you note, he is the third-highest ranking member of the Vatican - so having global ramifications of what this means, not just in Australia but for the church worldwide.

INSKEEP: I guess, just to summarize here a little bit, without being too graphic, and a lot of details aren't known - we're talking about groping cases. That's a word that people have used to describe some of the charges against Cardinal Pell.

WHITE: Yes, exactly. So, you know, some of the charges have been thrown out. There were charges that he had molested a young man while seeing a movie at the cinema; some at an altar. But again, the specific allegations are largely unknown at this point in order to protect the victims.

INSKEEP: Well, how is Pope Francis addressing all of this?

WHITE: Well, just today, the Vatican has confirmed they have - they are aware of what is going on. But the leave of absence that Pope Francis first granted Pell in 2017 remains in place. So in other words, justice must proceed forward. And, you know, this comes at a time in which Francis is really facing what is arguably the largest challenge of his papacy to date. At this very moment, three high-profile victims from Chile are in Rome to meet with him over the issue of sexual abuse. So this looms over him, but yet he has continued to sort of back Pell and grant him this leave of absence to sort of fight these charges, which he has strenuously denied.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember that in Chile, the pope initially made statements defending a cleric there and later had to admit grave errors. And as you said, he's now meeting some of the accusers - some of the victims - whom he had initially dismissed. Doesn't that influence the pope's thinking about this other case - Pell?

WHITE: Well, you know, even Francis' biggest supporters - of which there are many - note that whatever good he's done in his papacy over the past five years, it all really risks getting lost if he doesn't get this issue of sexual reform right. You know, it's important to remember, five years ago when he was elected, Francis came in with a mandate for reform to clean up the Vatican's finances, of which Pell was his point person for, and to really restore the church's credibility on sexual abuse. And now you have these two issues, in a sense, comingled into one, facing, you know, very much a great threat that will loom over anything he does going forward.

INSKEEP: Just a few seconds here, but do people at the Vatican, have they reached the point of thinking they have a fundamental cultural problem here and not just a fairly large number of bad actors?

WHITE: Well, I think there's been some serious soul-searching going on for some time. I think, you know, this Pell case certainly continues to bring that to light. And this will become sort of the measure in which the reform of the Francis papacy is gauged.

INSKEEP: Mr. White, thanks very much.

WHITE: Thank you, Steve, a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Christopher White writes for the Catholic magazine Crux, and he joined us by Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.