By JASON HOROWITZ and LAURIE GOODSTEIN/NY TIMES
Photo: Cardinal George Pell, at the Vatican on Thursday, said he would return to Australia to defend himself. Credit Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis came to power promising not only to create a more inclusive church and to clean up an ossified Vatican bureaucracy, but also to remove the stain of child sex abuse.
A global pedophilia scandal plagued his two immediate processors. With Francis’s election in 2013, many expected progress. Francis talked about powerful committees to safeguard children, tribunals to try bishops and a “zero tolerance” policy for offending priests.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
On Thursday, the Vatican announced that Francis had granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, now the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, and one the pope had brought into his inner circle even as a cloud of allegations swirled over the cardinal in Australia.
“We talked about my need to take leave to clear my name,” Cardinal Pell, 76, stone-faced in simple black cleric’s clothes, said as he sat next to the Vatican’s spokesman and reiterated his innocence. “So I’m very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.”
It was unusual and jarring, bad news for a pontificate that has mostly bathed in global adoration and done wonders to improve the public image of the church.
But for all of Francis’s good works, good will and popularity, disappointed critics saw Cardinal Pell’s removal as only the latest evidence that a pope who has focused the world’s attention on issues from climate change to peace on earth has his own blind spot when it comes to sex abuse in his ranks.
“What happened today clearly demonstrates that the revolution of Francis in the church, when it comes to the issue of sex abuse, is in name only, and not in deeds,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, an Italian journalist and the author of “Lust,” a book published this year about sex abuse in the Vatican that begins with a chapter about Cardinal Pell.
He said that despite the pope’s talk, “the fight against pedophilia is not a priority for Francis.”
Some have long questioned why Francis brought Cardinal Pell to Rome in 2014 in the first place, charging that he had offered the prelate an escape hatch just as the Australian Royal Commission examining institutional responses to child sexual abuse had begun its work in earnest.
At the very least, the choice seemed to demonstrate that the pope’s determination to dismantle the power hierarchies of the Roman Curia, which he had hoped Cardinal Pell could help him with, was a greater priority and had led him to overlook warning signs.
Despite serious ideological differences, Francis handpicked the arch-conservative Cardinal Pell to lead his Secretariat for the Economy, bringing him to Rome to use his well regarded financial acumen to clean up the church’s muddied finances. Right away, Cardinal Pell acknowledged that “hundreds of millions of euros” had been “tucked away” off the Vatican’s books.
Pope Francis then brought Cardinal Pell onto his powerful Council of Cardinals, a nine-person group that wields enormous power in the Curia. The Australian’s brashness made him enemies among entrenched Vatican officials who took his calls for financial transparency as a threat to their power.
Even as Cardinal Pell struggled to improve one aspect of the church’s image, he came with a separate cloud of scandal. The Australian Royal Commission found more than four thousand people who alleged they had been sexually abused in the church as children.
Cardinal Pell testified that he had made “enormous mistakes” in failing to remove priests accused of abuse when he served as archbishop of Melbourne, and then Sydney.
But if the Pope was displeased with Cardinal Pell, it was not publicly evident.
When allegations that Cardinal Pell had been an abuser himself began leaking into the Australian press, and when he testified for hours to the Royal Commission in February 2016 via video link from a Rome hotel, the cardinal insisted that he had “the full backing of the pope.”
Victims rights groups generally see the pontificate of John Paul II as a disaster with respect to sex abuse in the church, as he presided over vast cover-ups and a period of little accountability.
His successor, Pope Benedict, who read many of the ghastly reports during his time as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, made key policy changes to protect children and hold priests accountable for abuse. But he largely left bishops untouched.
Francis initially raised expectations that he would be more serious than his predecessors about rooting out abusers and demanding accountability.
Nine months after he became pope, he created a commission of outside experts to advise the church on how to protect children and prevent abuse.
Skeptics pointed out that the commission was announced in the midst of hearings by a United Nations panel in Geneva that subjected the Vatican to blistering criticism over the handling of sexual abuse cases.
The commission initially included two survivors of sexual abuse who had been openly critical of the church. Since then, one was forced out and the other left, with both saying the Vatican had failed to follow through on its promises.
Pope Francis acted on the commission’s proposal to create a tribunal to discipline bishops who covered up abuse — but then dispensed with the tribunal when it hit resistance within the Vatican.
The pope later issued an edict, titled “As a Loving Mother,” saying that the Vatican already had all the offices necessary to investigate and discipline negligent bishops, and would do so. But no discipline or sanctions have ever been announced.
“Pope Francis has a lot of explaining to do,” said the Rev. James E. Connell, a priest in Milwaukee, a canon lawyer, and a founding member of Catholic Whistleblowers, a group of priests, nuns and others who advocate for victims. “He sets up these things and then kills them and doesn’t follow through. And these are all matters of justice.”
Father Connell said the group had sent files of documents to Pope Francis and the Vatican on three American bishops the group accused of particularly egregious cover-ups of child abuse, and heard nothing back.
Pope Francis’ focus on mercy as a central teaching may also be a blind spot, Father Connell said. “We hear a lot from the pope about mercy, and fine, we hope the Lord is merciful. But at the same time, justice must be rendered,” he said.
Marie Collins, one of the two survivors who served on the commission that Francis created, said in a blog post on Thursday that it was already clear that Cardinal Pell was guilty of the “appalling mishandling” of priests who abused children while he served as a bishop.
She said Cardinal Pell should have stepped down from his Vatican position long ago, even before he faced charges of sexual offenses.
“He should never have been allowed to hide out in the Vatican to avoid having to face those in his home country who needed answers,” she wrote, adding that Cardinal Pell’s case has shown “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 also provoked outrage when he appointed as bishop Juan Barros, an acolyte of Chile’s most infamous serial abuser connected to the church — the Rev. Fernando Karadima. Bishop Barros stood by Father Karadima, who was tried and found guilty by the Vatican and was forced to retire.
Then Francis stood firmly by Bishop Barros when priests and parishioners disrupted his installation ceremony and wrote letters pleading with the pope to rescind the appointment. Francis was later caught on videotape in Rome calling the Chileans who objected to the bishop “stupid” and “leftists.”
Advocates of sex abuse victims were affronted once again in February when, in keeping with his vision for a more merciful church, he reduced sanctions against some priests convicted of pedophilia. The Vatican has also been criticized as retreating into a bunker mentality when accusations were made against its own.
“It is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable acts of abuse committed against minors,” the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, said on Thursday after Cardinal Pell read his statement.
He added, “the Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years at work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration.”
Jason Horowitz reported from the Vatican, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.