THE most senior Vatican official to be charged in connection with the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis has appeared in court in Australia for the first time.

The charges against Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic and Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, has stunned the Holy See and threatens to tarnish the pontiff’s image as a crusader against abusive clergy.

Pell, 76, has maintained his innocence since he was charged last month with sexually abusing multiple people years ago in his Australian home state of Victoria.

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Details of the allegations against him have yet to be made public, though police have described the charges as “historical” sexual assault offences – crimes that occurred years ago.

Pell did not say anything during his court appearance in Melbourne or as he left, surrounded by police and journalists.

He has not yet entered a formal plea but his lawyer, Robert Richter, told the court Pell planned to plead not guilty at a later date.

“For the avoidance of doubt and because of the interest, I might indicate that Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty to all charges and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has,” Richter told the court.

The cardinal’s appearance in Melbourne Magistrates Court lasted just minutes and was remarkably routine, yet the image of one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church standing before a cramped courtroom overflowing with journalists and spectators was anything but.

Many clerics have faced allegations of sex abuse in recent years, but Pell is by far the highest-ranking church official charged.

Advocates for abuse victims have long railed against Francis’ decision to appoint Pell to the high-ranking position in the first place; at the time of his promotion in 2014, Pell was already facing allegations that he had mishandled cases of clergy abuse during his time as archbishop of Melbourne and later Sydney.

Police and prosecutors must present their brief of evidence to Pell’s legal team by September 8 and the cardinal is next expected in court on October 6.