The charges relate to alleged “historical” incidents, police in the state of Victoria said.
The allegations were made by more than one person, said Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton.
Cardinal Pell, who is based in the Vatican, has vehemently denied the accusations.
As Vatican treasurer, Cardinal Pell is considered the third-ranking official in the Catholic Church.
“Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements,” the Church said in a statement on Thursday.
“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.”
For two decades, he has been a frontline figure in the Church’s debate over controversial issues such as homosexuality, Aids and stem cell research.
He has also handled the Church’s official response to allegations of sexual abuse within its Australian ranks during a series of inquiries.
When he gave evidence via video link to a Royal Commission into abuse last year, some abuse survivors flew all the way to Rome to watch.
It is hard to overstate, therefore, the significance of the decision to press charges against him.
When he returns to face those charges in an Australian court, every second will be scrutinised not just by the Australian press, but by members of Catholic congregations across the globe.