Cardinal George Pell is being prosecuted for child sexual offences in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: AFP
Cardinal George Pell is being prosecuted for child sexual offences in Melbourne, Australia. Photo: AFP

Pope Francis has removed from his group of close advisers two cardinals hit by sexual abuse scandals, including Australian George Pell, his economy minister, agencies reported on Wednesday.

Pell has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his job as secretariat for the economy, one of the most powerful Vatican posts, to defend himself from prosecution for historical child sexual offenses in Australia.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said: “The Holy See has the utmost respect for Australian judiciary. We are aware that a suppression order is in place [on media reporting on judicial procedures] and we intend to respect it.”

Asked if Pell, 77, was still the economy minister, Burke suggested he was, saying there had been no announcement to the contrary.

The other member removed from the so-called C-9 – a group of nine cardinals that meets periodically with the pope in Rome – is Francisco Javier Errázuriz of Chile.

Errázuriz, 85, the former archbishop of Santiago, has been accused by abuse survivors in Chile of discrediting victims and not investigating their cases, which he denies.

Chile’s sexual abuse scandal prompted all of the country’s 34 bishops to offer their resignation to the pope, who has so far accepted seven.

Widespread cover-ups

The Church has been hit by a series of child abuse scandals in recent years, with widespread allegations of cover-ups, including against the pope himself.

The pope clarified the composition of the C9 ahead of a February meeting with leaders of bishops’ conferences from around the world dealing with the “protection of minors,” to which victims of priest sex abuse have been invited.

The meeting of bishops from around the world will also have to deal with some Asian and African bishops conferences who say they are not concerned by the “Western” abuse problem.

“February’s meeting can’t resolve all the problems, because there’s too much world diversity in the Church. The American episcopacy is panicking, they want to be as radical [against sexual abuse] as possible, while Africans don’t want any measures taken,” said a source close to the pope.

“A code of silence has been our culture for too long, February’s meeting should mark a new beginning for bishops’ responsibility, or even for a new control system,” the source said.

– with reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters