Cardinal George Pell, the third most powerful figure in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic, was Thursday charged with historical child sex offences in a case that has rocked the church.
Pell, the Vatican's finance chief and the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to face such charges, "strenuously denied" the allegations and vowed to clear his name.
The saga poses a tough public relations challenge for Pope Francis, who handpicked Pell to control the Holy See's purse strings.
"Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences," Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters. "There are multiple complainants relating to those charges."
The 76-year-old was summonsed to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
No details of the charges were given and Patton would not take any questions, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the judicial process.
Catholic officials said the cardinal would return to Australia after receiving advice and approval from his doctors.
"He has again strenuously denied all allegations... He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously," the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said in a statement.
Australia does not have an extradition agreement with the Vatican, but has one with Italy.
A lawyer for two unnamed men who had made abuse claims against Pell said they were "over the moon" about the charges.
"It's been very difficult for them to stick their neck out," Ingrid Irwin told Melbourne's Herald Sun. "To come out against someone who is second to God, in some people's minds, has caused all sorts of problems for them."
The repercussions on the church's future could be significant, long-time observer and editor of Australian online forum Catholica, Brian Coyne, told AFP.
"This is the most senior person in the church who has ever been charged and the implications are both huge for the future of the Catholic Church in this country and internationally," Coyne said.
"Pope Francis must be feeling the heat at the moment and some embarrassment having his number-three senior manager facing these sorts of allegations."
- 'Mucked up' -
The announcement coincides with the final stages of a long-running national inquiry into responses to child sex abuse, ordered in 2012 after a decade of pressure to investigate widespread allegations of institutional paedophilia.
The royal commission has spoken to thousands of survivors and heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools.
Pell has appeared before the commission three times, once in person and twice via video-link, during which he admitted that he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in Victoria state in the 1970s.
The Pell charges stem from investigations by a Victoria police task force into allegations emanating from the royal commission and from a state parliamentary inquiry.
The royal commission released data in February that showed seven percent of Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in Australia between 1950 and 2010 but that the allegations were never investigated.
Some 4,444 alleged incidents of paedophilia were reported to church authorities and, in some dioceses, more than 15 percent of priests were perpetrators, it heard.
Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966 before returning to Australia in 1971 and rose to become the nation's top Catholic official.
He had been accused of historical sex abuse claims when he was the Archbishop of Sydney in 2002, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Pope Francis, who called him to the Vatican in 2014, said last year when asked about allegations against the cardinal that "we must avoid a media verdict, a verdict based on gossip".
Patton stressed that the cardinal had been "treated the same as anyone else in this investigation".
Coyne said Pell had been a "divisive figure in the church in Australia for a long time", and had a "very conservative" agenda that did not reflect the views of many Catholics in the country.
The percentage of Australians identifying as Catholics has slipped in recent years from the most popular religion at 25.3 percent in 2011, to 22.6 percent last year -- falling behind "no religion".
The Pell charges followed an announcement Wednesday that the Pope had defrocked an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty of sexually abusing minors, reversing an earlier decision to reduce his punishment.