THE historic sexual offence allegations made against Cardinal George Pell have plunged Pope Francis into the greatest crisis of his papacy, a Vatican watcher says.

Christopher Lamb, the Rome Correspondent for Catholic newspaper The Tablet, said the news of the charges against Cardinal Pell - the third most powerful figure in the church and the most senior Australian - created "shockwaves" when it came through yesterday.

"It's fair to say it has had a huge impact on people who work in the Vatican ... obviously [it was known] there was a possibility the Cardinal would be charged and the police were about to make a decision, but when it came through it really sent shockwaves through the global headquarters of Catholicism and the church is still coming to terms with this news," he told ABC's Lateline last night.

 

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell David Dyson

Lamb said The Cardinal had been "entrusted" by the Pope to repair the Vatican's finances and was now the most senior church figure to be charged with sex offences.

The 76-year-old must return to Melbourne on July 26 to face charges relating to multiple complainants.

He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to clear his name. Addressing the world's media from the Vatican yesterday, Cardinal Pell said: "I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."

He has stepped down from his Vatican duties as he begins his defence of the charge - but Mr Lamb told Lateline the effect on the Pope's papacy had been immediately felt.

"It's had a huge impact. I think it's fair to say this is the biggest crisis to face Pope Francis during his papacy."

Asked whether the Vatican could be impartial, he said the official response had been to balance the Cardinal's denials while still allowing the legal process to occur.

"Cardinal Pell has said he has been the subject of repeated character assassination ... He feels he has been made a scapegoat."

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