vatikan vatican.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Dennis Jarvis, used under CC BY-SA

Cardinal George Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic cleric and a key figure in the Vatican under Pope Francis, is being investigated by police over child sex abuse allegations, broadcaster ABC reported Wednesday.

A special police task force had been looking into the allegations for nearly a year but has now referred the case to the Office of Public Prosecutions for advice, ABC's 7.30 TV program reported.

Pell strongly denied the allegations when asked about them by ABC, according to the report.

Cardinal Pell is the man chosen by the pope to lead financial reform efforts. As the head of the Secretariat of the Economy, he is the Vatican's de-facto economy minister.

"The Cardinal does not wish to cause any distress to any victim of abuse," a statement released last week from Pell's office in Rome read. "However, claims that he has sexually abused anyone, in any place, at any time in his life are totally untrue and completely wrong."

Pell accused ABC of a "scandalous smear campaign" against him. The broadcaster said that police and prosecutors can decide whether the allegations warrant charges being filed against the cardinal.

The allegations go back to the 1970s, when Pell was a priest in the northern Victorian town of Ballarat.

Two men claimed on the program that they had been molested in a swimming pool by Pell in the 1970s when they were young boys, and  another man alleged that he had seen Pell expose himself to young boys in a beach changing room in the 1980s.

The men said they had made statements to police.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an advocacy group against paedophile priests, praised the men for their decision to go public, and suggested that Pell had something to hide.

"After a lengthy investigation, police have deemed eight accusers' accounts are credible enough that they're giving the evidence to prosecutors. That speaks volumes," SNAP director David Clohessy said in a statement.

"Pell refuses to be interviewed about the serious allegations. That too speaks volumes," he added.

The cardinal was previously accused of failing to act against paedophile priests under his supervision - something he admitted when he testified in March before an Australian government enquiry committee.

Like his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis has pledged "zero tolerance" on sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church, in an attempt to clean up its image after years of scandals.

In June, the pope issued new guidelines stating that bishops guilty of covering up cases of child sex abuse by priests should be sacked.

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