SYDNEY Australian police said on Wednesday they were considering whether to lay charges against the Vatican's Australian-born treasurer, Cardinal George Pell, after investigators handed over their recommendations.
Pell, who before his Vatican appointment was Archbishop of Sydney, has rejected any involvement in alleged child abuse in Australia, which local media have reported date from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Victoria State Police said in a statement on Wednesday that it had received advice from the state's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) over "a current investigation into historical sexual assault allegations".
Detectives will now "consider that advice" before deciding whether to press charges, police said in the statement released in response to questions about 75-year-old Pell. The statement did not name Pell or offer any detail about possible charges.
Pell's Vatican spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
The current Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, issued a statement calling media reports about the investigation "relentless character attacks" on Pell which turn the "principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty on its head".
"It is unfortunate that in the very week this happens media and authors publish and repeat allegations, some of which have already been thoroughly answered," Fisher's statement said.
"This cannot assist the impartial pursuit of justice. Cardinal Pell has cooperated in every way with multiple police, parliamentary and Royal Commission investigations," he added.
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002 when it was discovered that U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world.
Pell was a priest in rural Victoria in the 1970s and 1980s before he became archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and archbishop of Sydney in 2001. He took the Vatican role in 2014.
In October last year, Australian police said they interviewed Pell in Rome in relation to allegations of sexual assault.
Pell's office confirmed at that time that he participated in the interview and said he rejected "all and every allegation of sexual abuse".
Pell told an Australian government inquiry into institutional child abuse that the Church had made "enormous mistakes" and "catastrophic" choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and over-relying on counselling of priests to solve the problem.
Australia's Catholic Church has paid A$276 million ($213 million) in compensation to thousands of child abuse victims since 1980, the government inquiry heard in 2016 -- the first time the total compensation paid by the church's schools, orphanages and residences has been revealed.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Swati Pandey. Editing by Jane Wardell and Michael Perry)