Australian Cardinal George Pell charged with child sex offences

One of the Pope's top aides has taken leave after been charged with child sex offences, reportedly including at least one count of rape.

Australian Cardinal George Pell has been summoned to return from the Vatican to Melbourne to face court.

"Court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and return here to Rome back to work," he told reporters in Rome.

Pell is the most senior member of the Catholic Church ever to be charged with sexual abuse - and he's also the Pope's right-hand man.

For years, the world has wondered how far allegations of the sexual abuse of children could stretch within the Catholic Church.

On Thursday, the answer - right to the top.

Pell is the third most powerful man at the Vatican. He's in charge of the Church's billions of dollars, and a trusted aide to Pope Francis himself.

"Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in relation to historic sex offences, and there are multiple complainants in relation to those charges," Australian police say.

The charges date back to the 1970s, when Pell was a priest in Ballarat.

In the past it's been alleged he touched at least two childrens' genitals in the changing rooms of a local swimming pool.

Pell has long denied the charges, including just last month in Rome.

"I'd just like to restate my innocence; I stand by everything I said to the Royal Commission and in other places. We have to respect due process," he said.

Pell said on Thursday in a statement he strenuously denies all allegations and intends to return Australia. He says he's looking forward to his day in court, and the chance to clear his name.

The Cardinal's cooperation is important as whether or not he'll face court is up to him. There is no extradition treaty between Australia and the Vatican, meaning if he turns up in Melbourne next month it's of his own free will.