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opinion

Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the co-author of Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal.

It couldn't have happened at a more inauspicious time: on the very day when Pope Francis is celebrating with his most recently "created" cardinals and his newly appointed Metropolitan Archbishops in Rome, news came that his Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged with multiple counts of historical sexual assault by police in the Australian state of Victoria.

Cardinal Pell is a senior-ranking prelate who enjoys the pontiff's confidence on all matters fiduciary. Francis put him in command of a new dicasterial or governance structure designed to clean house among the various financial bodies operative in the Vatican, including the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as the Vatican Bank. Both institutions could be rogue in their accounting and auditing procedures, fiercely autonomous in the exercise of their power and draped in Medici-like opacity.

Cardinal Pell was to bring clarity, accountability and transparency to all the financial transactions conducted within the Vatican, and his progress – impeded in part by recalcitrant groupings of clerics and laity fearful of losing their authority – has been impressive, if laboured.

But the qualities that Pope Francis admired in the outspoken former archbishop of both Melbourne, and latterly Sydney, qualities that included a relentless application of energy and focus to his reforming task, a no-holds-barred approach to opposition to his initiatives and an able intelligence quick to grasp the complexity of things, were in and of themselves incapable of securing Cardinal Pell sanctuary from the controversies that hounded him "Down Under."

The no-nonsense and often blustery style of the cardinal, coupled with his arch-conservative views on matters ecclesial and political, have earned him a formidable cohort of critics only too keen to see him humbled. His cavalier dismissal of theological perspectives at odds with his own, his intolerance for dissenters and his undiminished clerical hauteur, have all contributed to the wide feeling of shadenfreude among his opponents.

But it must be remembered that like everyone else charged with criminal offences, he is entitled to the presumption of innocence. His high rank in the church – one of the electors of a pope and a valued ally of the current Bishop of Rome in his reforming agenda, if only on fiscal issues – makes him vulnerable to greater scrutiny by the media precisely because of the sorry record of universal episcopal accountability in the past.

In addition, he has been under review by the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, required to participate by video conferencing in relation to its investigations – an exercise that he performed poorly in – and hounded by accusations and rumours that predate his ordination as a bishop.

Cardinal Pell denies the veracity of any of these charges – new and old – and insists that he will vigorously contest them in court. He is not unaware of the sad irony that it was he who established the Melbourne Protocols concerned with ensuring due process and accountability around clerical sex-abuse allegations and that he has been pastorally keen on wiping out the blight of church corruption, if only selectively.

Other cardinals have been accused of sexual impropriety and assault in the past and were either dismissed and disgraced, such as Hermann Groer of Vienna, or vindicated and cleared of all taint of wrongdoing, as in the case of the much beloved Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. But Cardinal Pell's case is different, his key work of reform in the Vatican stalled, the Australian church polarized and demoralized, his reputation deeply compromised. The ramifications are also not limited to one jurisdiction because he is a member of the Pope's inner circle.

A gifted thinker who played a major role in the expansion of Catholic higher education in Australia, the learned and pugilistic priest from Ballarat (Cardinal Pell has a doctorate from Oxford), is now, at 76, in the fight of his life and Australian bluster alone won't work. It is not a matter of cowing some Curial underlings this time; it is a matter of facing a skeptical and unforgiving public.