Pell goes to ground, forced to leave toxic Vatican conflict

CARDINAL George Pell has gone to ground, disappearing from his apartment outside the walls of the Vatican as he prepares to return to Australia to fight sex offence charges levelled against him.

The 76-year-old has not been seen at his apartment since he issued a press statement on Thursday morning confirming he would return to Australia in order to clear his name in court.

While staff came and went throughout Thursday and into Friday morning, there was no sign of Cardinal Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic, prompting speculation he had moved into a temporary apartment inside the walls of the Vatican, or even to one of the country retreats owned by the church.

He has been granted a leave of absence by Pope Francis from his job as Vatican treasurer while he returns to Australia to defend himself in a process which will take months, and possibly years, to resolve.

While the Vatican has issued a statement of support, the Pope himself is yet to directly comment on the charges.

Cardinal Pell, who is also on Pope Francis' hand-picked nine-member Council of Cardinals advisory group, is the highest-ranking member of the Vatican ever to face such charges.

The development has rocked the Vatican.

It has also increased scrutiny on the toxic power play going on between Cardinal Pell and Cardinal Domenic Calcagno, who heads up the Vatican central bank.

The pair have been clashing since 2014 when Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Pell as Prefect of the new Secretariat of the Economy, tasking him with unpicking the Vatican's ancient and opaque financial processes.

The Italian-born Cardinal Calcagno, who has headed up the APSA central bank of the Vatican since before the reign of Pope Francis, objected to the intervention.

The pair have clashed repeatedly for years as Cardinal Pell sought to introduce reforms and modernise the Vatican's processes.

Earlier this week, Cardinal Pell's auditor-general, Libero Milone, unexpectedly quit, two years into a five-year contract. The Italian press speculates he had grown tired of clashing with Cardinal Calcagno.

His departure, and the absence of Cardinal Pell, will strengthen Cardinal Calcagno's position, with the APSA bank administering the Vatican's large financial and real estate portfolio.

The charging of Cardinal Pell is big news in Italy, and the pro-Vatican Roman newspaper Avvenire put it on the front page, noting Cardinal Pell had maintained his innocence.

Originally published as Pell sidelined from Vatican power-play