(CNN) — Cardinal George Pell, the most senior member of the Catholic Church in Australia, has been charged with multiple historical sexual assault offenses, police said Thursday.
Pell has previously denied covering up abuse committed by priests when he served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001. But he acknowledged his predecessor, Archbishop Frank Little, now deceased, had destroyed documents to protect priests.
“I want to be perfectly clear — the process and the procedures that have been followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offenses whenever we investigate them,” Victoria Deputy Police Commissioner Shane Patton said at a news conference.
“Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation.”
Pell currently serves as a top adviser to Pope Francis and the Vatican’s top financial adviser. In 2013, he was named one of eight cardinals tasked with investigating ways to reform the church.
He will be required to appear in the Melbourne Magistrate’s court on July 18th for a filing hearing. He is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges, police said.
The announcement is likely to deal a serious blow to the reputation of the Catholic Church in Australia, which has seen its membership shrink in recent years. The 2016 census results, released Tuesday, showed that Catholics no longer make up the top religious affiliation in Australia.
During a government inquiry in 2013, Pell apologized for the abuse as a witness and acknowledged that cover-ups allowed pedophile priests to continue abusing children.
“The primary motivation would have been to respect the reputation of the church. There was a fear of scandal,” Pell said. ”Many in the church did not understand just what damage was being done to the victims. We understand that better now.”
Pell is based in the Vatican and is reported to still be there, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Australia and the Vatican, which is located in Rome but independent of Italy, do not have an extradition treaty, according to Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University.
But Rothwell believes Pell will return to Australia to face the charges, based on Pell’s own comments and Pope Francis’ commitment to acknowledging and atoning for the church’s responsibility in the scandal.
“Given Cardinal Pell’s very senior position in the church, I believe the Pope would expect the cardinal to return and face these charges,” Rothwell said.