POPE Francis’ financial adviser is being charged in Australia with historical sexual assault, in a move sure to rock the highest levels of the Holy See.

George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church’s long-running sexual abuse scandal.

Victoria state police deputy commissioner Shane Patton said police had summonsed Cardinal Pell to Australia to face multiple charges in relation to “historic sexual offences”.

Patton gave no further details about the allegations.

Cardinal Pell, who has been ordered to appear at Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18, has repeatedly denied abuse claims against him.

The Catholic Church in Australia, which issues statements on the cardinal’s behalf, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges.

“It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have, obviously, been tested in any court yet,” Patton said in Melbourne.

“Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process,” he added.

The charges are a new and serious blow to Pope Francis, who has already suffered several credibility setbacks in his “zero tolerance” policy on sex abuse.

Cardinal Pell has faced claims that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse while he was archbishop of firstly Melbourne and then Sydney.

His actions as archbishop have come under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.

Australia’s long-standing royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse – the nation’s highest form of inquiry – has found shocking levels of abuse in the country’s Catholic Church, revealing earlier this year that seven per cent of Catholic priests had been accused of sexually abusing children over the previous several decades.

Last year, Cardinal Pell acknowledged during his evidence to the commission that the church had made “enormous mistakes” in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests.

He conceded that he too had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse and vowed to help end a spate of suicides that has plagued church abuse victims in his Australian home town of Ballarat.

But more recently, Cardinal Pell himself became the focus of a clergy sex abuse investigation with Victoria detectives flying to the Vatican last year to interview him.

It remains unclear what allegations the charges announced yesterday relate to, though two men, now in their 40s, have said that Cardinal Pell touched them inappropriately at a swimming pool, while he was a senior priest in Melbourne in the late 1970s.

Cardinal Pell said he would take a leave of absence as the Vatican’s chief financial adviser to return to Australia to fight the charges.

“I would think that the Pope would be very concerned to think that one of his cardinals, and someone who holds a high position within the Vatican government structure, is being wanted on criminal charges in Australia,” said Donald Rothwell, an international law expert at the Australian National University.

The charges put Pope Francis in a thorny position; in 2014 he 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.

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 – following objections by Vatican officials.

When asked last year about the accusations against Cardinal Pell, Francis said he wanted to wait for Australian justice to take its course before judging.

“It’s true, there is a doubt,” he told reporters on his way home from Poland.

“We have to wait for justice and not first make a mediatic judgment – a judgment of gossip – because that won’t help.

“Once justice has spoken, I will speak,” he added.

Francis appointed Cardinal Pell in 2014 to a five-year term to head the Vatican’s new economy secretariat, a mandate that has since been restricted to performing more of an oversight role.