Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet denied on Friday accusations of sexual assault levelled against him by a woman who has said the aggression took place more than a decade ago when he was archbishop of Quebec.
"I firmly deny having made inappropriate gestures on her person, and I consider the interpretation and dissemination of these accusations as sexual assaults to be defamatory," Ouellet said in a statement.
Ouellet, a prominent Vatican official, was named earlier this week in a class action lawsuit against the Quebec Catholic archdiocese that alleged cases of sexual assault by some 88 clergy and staff working there starting in 1940.
In the filing in the Quebec Superior Court, an anonymous complainant alleged that Ouellet had inappropriately touched her and had made comments that made her feel uncomfortable between 2008 and 2010 when she was an intern in her 20s in the archdiocese.
The Vatican announced on Thursday that following a preliminary internal review of the accusations, Pope Francis had decided there was insufficient evidence to open a Church investigation into the allegations.
Ouellet, making his first public comment on the case, said he would contest the accusations if the class action lawsuit were pursued.
"Should a civil enquiry be opened, I intend to actively participate in it so that the truth is established and my innocence acknowledged," he said.
Ouellet heads the Vatican's powerful Congregation for Bishops which advises the pope on which priests should be made bishops. He is on many experts' short list of candidates to succeed Pope Francis after the pontiff dies or resigns.
Last month, Ouellet accompanied the pope on a six-day visit to Canada that focused on apologising to indigenous people for abuse in government schools run by the Roman Catholic Church.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Writing by Crispian BalmerEditing by Gareth Jones)