Georgle Pell charged: Police charge most senior Australian Catholic sex assault

Cardinal George Pell, Australia's highest ranking Catholic will face at least three serious sex assault charges, including at least one count of rape.

Victoria Police has confirmed Cardinal Pell has been charged on summons over multiple charges and is due to face Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 for a filing hearing.

The announcement is set to send shockwaves through the Catholic Church in Australia and around the world.

Cardinal Pell is the third most senior Catholic at the Vatican, where he is responsible for the church's finances.

The charges are likely to force Cardinal Pell to step down from his Vatican post while he fights the charges. Cardinal Pell strenuously denies any wrongdoing.

All was quiet at Cardinal Pell's Rome residence as the news broke. 

He lives in a block of apartments on a square just outside the Vatican walls, metres from St Peter's Square, a minute's walk from the doors to the Basilica. 

Security is tight in this part of Rome - an army jeep with two alert, armed soldiers sits on the corner of the square, another on the other side of the wall - and the police presence in this part of the city is constant. 

But there are no lights on in the building and the city was quiet in the early hours of Thursday morning. 

Thursday is a public holiday in Rome - the fiesta of St Peter and St Paul. It's a day that many natives traditionally head to the beach. 

Cardinal Pell has retained leading Victorian criminal barrister, Robert Richter QC, and it is likely some of the argument that Mr Richter will make in court will concern the question of whether Cardinal Pell can receive a fair trial given the large amount of pre-trial publicity.

The precise details of the charges are not known. However, a legal source told Fairfax Media that the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions, John Champion, has been assessing whether Cardinal Pell should face charges of rape, buggery or indecent assault. 

As Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican, Cardinal Pell may avoid prosecution should he choose not to return to Victoria, but he is expected to come back to fight the charges.

Three detectives from Victoria Police's Sano Taskforce travelled to Rome to interview Cardinal Pell about the allegations last year.

In May this year, Victoria Police received advice from the Department of Public Prosecutions regarding the investigation.

It was the second time the DPP had been asked to review the brief.

On May 25, Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said a decision was "imminent" about the investigation into Cardinal Pell.

He has previously been accused of sexually abusing a number of boys.

He has repeatedly and emphatically denied all allegations, but said he would continue to co-operate with the police investigation.

Cardinal Pell was a priest in Ballarat before becoming Archbishop of Melbourne and then being appointed as a Cardinal.

His career

1966: Ordained a priest for the Ballarat diocese in St Peter's Basilica

1971: Assistant Priest at Swan Hill

1973 - 1983: Assistant Priest at Ballarat East parish

1978 - 1979: Episcopal Vicar for Education in the Ballarat diocese

1987: Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne

1993: Pell walks priest Gerald Ridsdale to court. Ridsdale is later convicted of a string of child sex abuse charges

1996: Appointed Archbishop of Melbourne

2001: Appointed Archbishop of Sydney, the Australian Catholic church's most senior position

2003: Appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Sacred College of Cardinals

Cardinal Pell arriving at the Royal Commission in 2014. Picture: Getty Images

Cardinal Pell arriving at the Royal Commission in 2014. Picture: Getty Images

The investigation  

February 20, 2016: It's revealed a Victoria Police taskforce has been ¬≠investigating allegations that Cardinal Pell sexually abused between five and 10 boys

February 28, 2016: In evidence to the child sexual abuse royal commission in Rome, Cardinal Pell admits to "catastrophic failures" by the Catholic Church in relation to child sexual abuse, an issue he says was on his radar from the early 1970s

July 27, 2016: The ABC's 7.30 program details complaints against Cardinal Pell being investigated by Victoria Police. The allegations date back to1978-79

October 2016: Three detectives travel to Rome to meet Cardinal Pell, who voluntarily participates in an interview

February 2017: A police brief of evidence regarding sex assault allegations against Cardinal Pell is handed to prosecutors for review

May 13, 2017: ABC journalist Louise Milligan's book Cardinal: The Rise And Fall of George Pell is published. The book contains new allegations of sexual abuse against Cardinal Pell

May 14, 2017: Cardinal Pell's lawyers strongly deny the allegations raised in the book

May 16, 2017: Victoria Police receives advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions about the brief of evidence.  Police refuse to comment

May 18, 2017: Cardinal Pell restates his innocence in Rome, saying: "We have to respect due process, wait until it is concluded and obviously I will continue to co-operate fully."

May 25, 2017: Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton says a decision about charging the senior Catholic figure is "imminent".

June 29, 2017: Victoria Police prepares to make an announcement regarding charges against the Cardinal. It's expected Cardinal Pell will be charged on summons with sex offences.