The Vatican treasurer and Australia’s most senior Catholic figure, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged with sex offences in Australia.
The charges relate to alleged “historical” incidents, police in the state of Victoria said.
The allegations were made by more than one person, said Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton.
Cardinal Pell, 76, who is based in the Vatican, has vehemently denied the accusations.
“I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court,” he told reporters at a Vatican news conference.
“I’m innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
He complained that he had been subjected to “relentless character assassination” during a two-year investigation, which had seen frequent leaks to the media.
He said the Pope had agreed to allow him a leave of absence to fight the charges.
As Vatican treasurer, Cardinal Pell is considered the third-ranking official in the Holy See.
The Catholic Church worldwide has in recent years faced a damaging series of allegations relating to sex abuse by priests, and claims that these cases were covered up.
What are the charges?
Victoria Police said they had made the decision to charge Cardinal Pell after receiving advice from prosecutors last month.
“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants,” Deputy Commissioner Patton said.
Details of the allegations were not revealed.
Deputy Commissioner Patton said police “process and procedures” had been no different from any other investigation.
“Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation,” he said.
The charges were served on Cardinal Pell’s legal representatives in Melbourne on Thursday.
The cardinal would be required to face the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on 18 July, Deputy Commissioner Patton said.
What does the Church say?
“Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements,” the Church said in a statement.
“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.”
Cardinal Pell was voluntarily interviewed by Australian detectives in Rome last year.
Who is Cardinal Pell?
Cardinal Pell has been a strong supporter of traditional Catholic values, taking a conservative stance on same-sex marriage and contraception, and advocating priestly celibacy.
But his career has been dogged first by claims that he covered up child sexual abuse by priests, and then later that he was himself an abuser. He has always strongly denied any wrongdoing.
In 2014, Cardinal Pell was summoned to Rome to become chief of the Vatican’s finances, a new position created by Pope Francis in the wake of scandals at the Vatican Bank.
But he left behind growing anger over revelations of child sex abuse by members of the Catholic clergy in Australia.
Cardinal Pell repeatedly faced allegations from abuse victims of a cover-up and his critics accused him of appearing aloof and arrogant.
He was accused of moving one notorious paedophile priest – Gerald Ridsdale – around parishes rather than reporting him, and of attempting to bribe one of the victims to keep quiet.
He denied any wrongdoing but said he could have done more to investigate claims of abuse.
In 2016 the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) aired allegations by two men who claimed Cardinal Pell had touched them inappropriately in the 1970s.
He strongly denied the allegations, describing them as a “scandalous smear campaign”.
Shockwaves – Hywel Griffith, BBC News Australia correspondent
Cardinal Pell is not just Australia’s most senior cleric, he is one of the highest-ranking officials in the Catholic world.
For two decades, he has been a frontline figure in the Church’s debate over controversial issues such as homosexuality, Aids and stem cell research.
He has also handled the Church’s official response to allegations of sexual abuse within its Australian ranks during a series of inquiries.
When he gave evidence via video link to a Royal Commission into abuse last year, some abuse survivors flew all the way to Rome to watch.
It is hard to overstate, therefore, the significance of the decision to press charges against him.
When he returns to face those charges in an Australian court, every second will be scrutinised not just by the Australian press, but by members of Catholic congregations across the globe.