Police are investigating multiple allegations of child abuse against Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, including that he touched the genitals of children while swimming in a public pool in Ballarat in the late 1970s.
The allegations have now been referred by Victoria Police to the Office of Public Prosecutions for advice, the ABC reports.
The ABC's 7.30 program has revealed that Taskforce Sano has been examining allegations from complainants in Ballarat, Torquay and Melbourne for more than a year, and is looking into incidents that allegedly happened during Cardinal Pell's time as Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
The program has obtained eight police statements from complainants, witnesses and family members who are helping the taskforce with its investigation. The allegations were repeated on 7.30 on Wednesday night, and include:
- that Cardinal Pell would touch the genitals of children while swimming in a public pool in Ballarat in the late '70s
- that he was naked in the change rooms on a regular basis in front of children
- that he exposed himself to three young children in another change room, at the Torquay Surf Club in 1986 or 1987.
Cardinal Pell vehemently denied the allegations, with his office saying he "emphatically and unequivocally rejects any allegations of sexual abuse against him".
According to the ABC, complaints include those by two men, now in their 40s, from Ballarat.
A reporter spoke to several people in Ballarat and Torquay, who told 7.30 they feared Cardinal Pell may never come back to Australia and face their claims against him, after he failed travel to Ballarat and give evidence at Royal Commission hearings in February.
"I was shattered, absolutely shattered," one complainant said, about hearing Cardinal Pell could not travel to Australia due to a heart condition.
"He should be ashamed of what happened to us - it's not our fault."
"I'm disgusted, I'm angry. I just want him to come back and look me in the eye," a second complainant said.
They hoped sharing their story would help others come forward.
In a statement to the ABC, Cardinal Pell's office said he "emphatically and unequivocally rejects any allegations of sexual abuse against him".
In a statement dated July 22, Cardinal Pell's office said: "The claims that he has sexually abused anyone, in any place, at any time in his life are totally untrue and completely wrong.
"He denies the allegations absolutely, and says that they, and any allegations of them by the ABC are nothing more than a scandalous smear campaign which appears to be championed by the ABC," the statement said.
"If there was any credibility in any of these claims, they would have been pursued by the Royal Commission by now."
A Victoria Police spokeswoman said police had no comment "at this time".
Cardinal Pell began serving in the Catholic Church in Australia as an assistant priest in 1971, before he worked at a parish in Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1987.
Cathy Kezelman, president of advocacy group Blue Knot Foundation, said if the allegations were found to be true, Cardinal Pell should return to Australia.
She said the allegations were "significant" given Cardinal Pell's influence over the Catholic Church's response to sexual abuse.
"Allegations that he himself may have been the perpetrator of abuse are highly concerning," Dr Kezelman said.
"The bottom line is that no one is above the law."
In a statement issued in response to the ABC report, Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart said Cardinal Pell deserved to go through the "usual lawful processes without being compromised or sensationalised by the media".
"I have known Cardinal Pell as a seminarian, priest, bishop and friend for more than 55 years," Archbishop Hart said.
"The allegations made on the ABC... do not reflect the man I know or the behaviour which I have observed over the years I have known him.
"All citizens are entitled to have allegations of criminal conduct investigated independently and according to law by police.
"Cardinal Pell is also, like all citizens, entitled to the presumption of innocence. All in society are at risk if these basic tenets are breached."
Peter Fox, a whistleblower and former NSW Police Detective who helped to spark the royal commission into child abuse, said he was aware of the allegations against Cardinal Pell before they were revealed on 7.30 and the question was now whether the Cardinal would return to Australia to address them.
"There's been a lot of rumours circulating for some time," Mr Fox said. "I know a lot of survivors and people down in the Ballarat community.
"I think [the allegations have] probably been a great shock to a great many people, but to a lot of others, it's probably been something they've been expecting for so long."
"The history of the Vatican sending clergy back to countries where such allegations have been raised hasn't been real good.
"It now comes down to a very moral situation, I suppose, of George Pell himself, will he come back to be interviewed and will he come back if there are charges to be preferred, to face a trial. I think we're all waiting to see.
See published article here http://www.smh.com.au/national/police-investigating-cardinal-george-pell-child-abuse-allegations-report-20160727-gqf8qn.html