CNN  — 

Last December, Pope Francis wrote a letter to bishops around the world, lamenting the pain his church has caused sexually abused children.

“It is a sin that shames us,” the Pope said. “The sin of what happened, the sin of failing to help, the sin of covering up and denial, the sin of the abuse of power.” He pledged to take “all necessary measures” to assure that “these atrocities” never again occur in the church, where there would be “zero tolerance” of anyone who hurts children.

That’s the kind of straight talk Catholics expected when the College of Cardinals elected Francis in 2013. He was an outsider, had never worked in Rome and earned a reputation as incorruptible while serving as an archbishop in Argentina.

But as the sexual abuse crisis continues to swirl around his church, Francis’ promises have run into a brick wall of Vatican opposition. His plan for a tribunal to try bishops accused of covering up abuse was scotched. The two abuse survivors appointed to his commission to protect children have quit or been placed on a leave of absence after battling church officials. And now his commitment to take action faces its biggest test, after one of his top advisers, Cardinal George Pell, was charged with sexual assault in his native Australia on Wednesday.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican in  November 2016.

The accusations against Pell set two of Francis’ chief aims at odds. While he has pledged to punish officials complicit in sexual abuse, he is also loath to believe “gossip,” as he calls it, and quick to offer mercy to sinners, especially those with whom he has close ties.

“He has a blind spot when it comes to people close to him,” said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries” and former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service. “I think he has a wide tolerance for people who are advising him, and sometimes that gets him into trouble.”

As Thavis noted, Pell’s guilt has yet to be proven, but his influence in the Vatican is unquestionable. The 76-year-old is the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy – the Treasury Secretary, essentially – and a key driver behind the Pope’s campaign to reform the hidebound Vatican. He’s known as hardheaded and tough-talking, the kind of “bad cop” popes need to crack recalcitrant bureaucracies.

But abuse survivors have long accused Pell of failing to protect children while he was a powerful archbishop in Australia. More recently, allegations surfaced that Pell himself was guilty of abuse, according to The New York Times and other media reports. The archbishop has vigorously denied both accusations.

The Australian police described the charges as “historical assaults” but did not release details about the charges or disclose any information about the alleged victims, saying only that there are multiple charges and “multiple complainants.”

At a news conference in Rome on Thursday, Pell said he had been the victim of “relentless character assassination.”

“I’m innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

The Vatican said Pell will be granted a leave of absence to attend his trial, with court proceedings scheduled to begin July 18. While Vatican spokesman Greg Burke expressed respect for Australia’s judicial system, he also praised Pell’s past conduct on clergy sexual abuse.

“Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors,” Burke said.

Pell cooperated with an Australian government inquiry into clergy sexual abuse, supported the Pope’s commission on the protection of minors and, as a bishop in Australia, introduced measures to protect children and provide assistance to abuse victims, Burke said.

But Pell has also admitted that Catholic officials had made “enormous mistakes” in handling clergy abuse cases. Between 1950 and 2015, 7% of Australian priests were accused of abusing more than 4,440 children, according to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. From 1987 until he moved to Rome in 2014, Pell had been one of Australia’s highest-ranking church officials in its two largest dioceses, in Sydney and Melbourne.

Cardinal George Pell: A brief bio

  • Cardinal George Pell was born on June 8, 1941, in Ballarat, Australia.
  • He was ordained in 1966. Twenty-one years later, he was elected titular Bishop of Scala and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and received episcopal ordination on 21 May 1987.
  • Pope John Paul II named him the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, a position he held until 2001, when he was named the Archbishop of Sydney
  • In April 2013, Pope Francis named him one of eight cardinals tasked with studying reform in the Catholic Church

  • Source: Holy See Press Office

    Peter Saunders, one of the abuse survivors on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has long accused Pell of mishandling sexual abuse by clergy in Australia, calling his treatment of victims “almost sociopathic.” Saunders was placed on leave of absence from the commission in 2016 after clashing with church officials over the glacial pace of reforms.

    Pell’s background should have disqualified him from serving as a close adviser to Pope Francis, said Marie Collins, a former member of the Pope’s commission to protect minors.

    Collins, an Irishwoman and abuse survivor, quit the commission in February after accusing church officials – but not Pope Francis – of promising to combat sexual abuse in public while privately squashing efforts to reform the church.

    “The fact that Cardinal Pell was appointed to a very senior post in the Vatican,” Collins said in a statement Thursday, “rather than having to face any sanction for his mishandling of abuse cases was a slap in the face to all those he had let down so badly, not only victims but Catholic people who have spent years hearing assurance from the Catholic Church that it is taking the issue seriously.”

    Pell’s case, Collins continued, “has shown is how little reliance we can put on assurances from the Catholic Church that bishops and religious superiors will face sanctions if they mishandle abuse cases.”

    Francis angered some Chileans in 2015 by promoting a bishop accused of complicity in a notorious sexual abuse case. The Pope called the protesters “dumb” and implied they were led astray by government leftists.

    Francis also reinstated an Italian priest who had been defrocked by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2012 after being convicted of child sex abuse, only to again remove him from ministry earlier this week, according to National Catholic Reporter.

    But that case pales in comparison to Pell’s.

    The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for National Catholic Reporter, said the church should cooperate with the Australian investigators, and, if Pell is found guilty, Francis must immediately remove him from ministry, just as he would any other priest – and then brace for the backlash.

    “If he’s found guilty,” Reese said, “it’s going to be an absolute disaster for the Vatican.”