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Cardinal George Pell, left, is flanked by Vatican spokesman Greg Burke as he arrives to meet the media, at the Vatican, Thursday, June 29, 2017. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Vatican Cardinal George Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
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The Latest: Critics: Pope must do more to confront sex abuse

Cardinal George Pell, left, is flanked by Vatican spokesman Greg Burke as he arrives to meet the media, at the Vatican, Thursday, June 29, 2017. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Vatican Cardinal George Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Latest on Vatican Cardinal George Pell being charged with sex offenses in Australia (all times local):

4:50 p.m.

Vatican analysts say Pope Francis is now facing pressure to make good on promises to forcefully confront the sex abuse crisis after his top financial adviser was charged in his native Australia with multiple criminal counts of sexual assault years ago.

Cardinal George Pell says he is taking a leave of absence as the Vatican’s finance czar after Australian police charged him with multiple counts of “historical” sexual assault. Pell appeared before reporters on Thursday to deny the accusations and denounce what he called a “relentless character assassination.”

Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, an online archive of clerical sex abuse documents, said she was surprised by the charges “simply because of their boldness.”

In an email to The Associated Press, she said: “Some say Pell is being scapegoated. While Pell undeniably is the poster boy for the Australian church’s wrongdoing, false allegations are relatively rare.”

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9 a.m.

The Vatican spokesman says Pope Francis has appreciated Cardinal George Pell’s honesty and commitment during his three years working to reform the Vatican’s finances.

In a statement read to reporters Thursday, spokesman Greg Burke recalled that Pell has “openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable” acts of sexual abuse against minors.

He noted that Pell has cooperated with Australia’s Royal Commission investigation into sex abuse and that as a bishop in Australia, worked to protect children and compensate victims.

The statement said the Holy See had learned “with regret” of the charges and that Francis had granted Pell a leave of absence to defend himself.

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8:30 a.m.

Cardinal George Pell says he is taking a leave of absence as the Vatican’s finance czar after Australian police charged him with multiple counts of “historical” sexual assault.

Pell appeared before reporters on Thursday to deny the accusations, denounce what he called a “relentless character assassination” in the media and announce he would return to Australia to face the charges.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pope Francis had learned with “regret” of the charges and had granted Pell a leave of absence to defend himself. He said the Vatican’s financial reforms would continue in his absence.

Pell has been summoned to appear in court in Australia’s Victoria state next month.

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