Australian police charged a top Vatican cardinal on Thursday with multiple counts of "historical" sexual assault offenses, a stunning decision certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.

Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis' chief financial adviser and Australia's most senior Catholic, said in an early morning appearance at the Vatican that he would take a leave of absence as the Vatican's finance czar and would return to Australia to fight the charges. He denied the accusations and denounced what he called a "relentless character assassination" in the media.

Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.

Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton in Australia's Victoria state said police have summonsed Pell to appear in court to face multiple charges of "historical sexual assault offenses," meaning offenses that generally occurred some time ago. Patton said there are multiple complainants against Pell, but gave no other details on the allegations against the cardinal. Pell was ordered to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.

For years, Pell, 76, has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney. But more recently, Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation, with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview the cardinal. It is unclear what allegations the charges announced Thursday relate to, but two men, now in their 40s, have said that Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s, when Pell was a senior priest in Melbourne.

Patton told reporters in Melbourne that none of the allegations against Pell had been tested in any court, adding: "Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process."

Specific details about the multiple complaints brought against Pell were not detailed by Victoria State Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton.

“The charges were today served on Cardinal Pell’s legal representatives in Melbourne and they have been lodged also at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences,” Patton said, according to news.com.au.

The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his promised "zero tolerance" policy about sex abuse. The charges will also further complicate Francis' financial reform efforts at the Vatican, which were already strained by Pell's repeated clashes with the Italian-dominated bureaucracy. Just last week, one of Pell's top allies, the Vatican's auditor general, resigned without explanation two years into a five-year term, immediately raising questions about whether the reform effort was doomed.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pope Francis had learned with "regret" of the charges and had granted Pell a leave of absence to defend himself. He said the Vatican's financial reforms would continue in his absence.

Pell's actions as archbishop came under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorized investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children. Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse — the nation's highest form of inquiry — has found shocking levels of abuse in Australia's Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children over the past several decades.

Last year, Pell acknowledged during his testimony to the commission that the Catholic Church had made "enormous mistakes" in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests over centuries. He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.

Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican. But in a statement from the Sydney Archdiocese, Pell said he would return to Australia "as soon as possible," following advice and approval by his doctors. Last year, Pell declined to return to Australia to testify for the third time before the Royal Commission, saying he was too ill to fly. He instead testified via video conference from Rome.

The Blue Knot Foundation, an Australian support group for adult survivors of childhood abuse, said the decision to charge Pell sent a powerful message to both abuse survivors and society as a whole.

"It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications, or standing," the group's head of research, Pam Stavropoulos, said in a statement.

The charges put the pope in a thorny position. In 2014, Francis won cautious praise from victims' advocacy groups when he created a commission of outside experts to advise him and the broader church about "best practices" to fight abuse and protect children.

But the commission has since lost much of its credibility after its two members who were survivors of abuse left. Francis also scrapped the commission's signature proposal — a tribunal section to hear cases of bishops who covered up for abuse — after Vatican officials objected.

In addition, Francis drew heated criticism for his 2015 appointment of a Chilean bishop accused by victims of helping cover up for Chile's most notorious pedophile. The pope was later caught on videotape labeling the parishioners who opposed the nomination of being "leftists" and "stupid."

Francis appointed Pell in 2014 to a five-year term to head the Vatican's new economy secretariat, giving him broad rein to control all economic, administrative, personnel and procurement functions of the Holy See. The mandate has since been restricted to performing more of an oversight role.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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