Australian authorities have charged Cardinal George Pell, a top Vatican official, with several counts of past sexual assault crimes. Cardinal Pell is Pope Francis' chief financial adviser and the charges are set to send ripples through the highest levels of the Vatican.

First charge of its kind

The Cardinal becomes the most senior Vatican official ever to be charged in court in the Catholic church's long history of sexual abuse scandals. According to Victoria state Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton, Cardinal Pell has been summoned to appear in an Australian court to answer to the sexual assault charges.

The charges have been designated "historical," meaning that they mainly took place a long time ago. Patton revealed that there are multiple charges against the Catholic official. The police chief refused to divulge further details. Pell will appear at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.

For years, the Catholic priest has been accused of having mishandled cases of sexual abuses by clergy during his time as the archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney. He only recently became the focus of a clergy sexual assault investigation, with Australian police coming to the Vatican last year to have a talk with him. It is not yet clear what the charges announced on Thursday relate to, but two men in their forties have accused the Catholic official of touching them inappropriately at a swimming pool in the late 1970s.

Pell was a senior Catholic priest in Melbourne at the time of the alleged sexual abuse.

Issuing a statement on behalf of the senior Vatican man, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said that Pell had firmly denied all the allegations. The statement added that the seventy-six-year-old Catholic would return to Australia to defend his honor.

According to the Archdiocese, Pell is looking forward to clearing his name in court.

Blow to Vatican reforms

Pell's charges could present a new and severe blow to Pope Francis' promise of zero tolerance for sexual abuse. The Vatican has already suffered numerous credibility setbacks in the past. The Pope's financial reform agenda at the Vatican could also be affected.

The reforms were already near breaking point due to Pell's frequent clashes with the Italian-dominated Vatican bureaucracy.

The Vatican is yet to make public its stand on the charges, but it did announce that Cardinal Pell would issue a statement in Rome on Thursday.