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Australian Cardinal George Pell, Acquitted of Child Sex Abuse, Dead at 81

Cardinal George Pell, a renowned Roman Catholic conservative and former Vatican official acquitted of sexual abuse in 2020, died on Tuesday at 81, his private secretary reported. Fr. Joseph Hamilton told Reuters Pell died Tuesday night in a Rome hospital. Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli says Pell died from cardiac issues after a hip surgery.

In 2020, an Australian appeals court overturned Pell’s 1990s choir boy sexual abuse convictions. After 13 months in prison, Pell was released from the Roman Catholic Church’s most senior sex abuse scandal. Pope Francis appointed Pell as Vatican economics minister in 2014, but he resigned in 2017 to face charges in Australia.

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The traditional Italian guard resisted his Vatican reforms. Pope Francis called Pell “the brilliance” for insisting on a unified approach to money flows and corruption in a July Reuters interview. During his two decades as head of the Australian Catholic hierarchy, Pell was admired by conservatives but reviled by liberals for his unwavering opposition to same-sex marriage and women’s ordination.

Since his acquittal, he lived in Rome and met Pope Francis multiple times. Francis warmly hailed Pell after his return. Francis offered his morning Mass on Pell’s 2020 acquittal for all those who face unjust sentences, which he equated to Jesus’ persecution.

Pell became a Vatican fixture after retiring to Rome. Conservatives planning Francis’s replacement met at his residence. He was close to Pope Benedict, who died last month. He opposed Benedict’s white-wearing, saying it confused the faithful. After returning to Rome, Francis told Reuters that retired popes needed guidelines.

In May 2018, Pell was committed to stand trial for previous sexual offenses at a Ballarat pool in the 1970s and Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s. The swimmers’ lawsuit was abandoned after a judge disallowed evidence.

At two trials, Pell, who rejected the claims, did not testify. The first ended in a deadlocked jury. At the retrial, a jury unanimously convicted him of five counts of assaulting two young choirboys at the cathedral as archbishop of Melbourne and sentenced him to six years in prison.

In Rome, Australian Cardinal Pell discusses his jail time and future intentions. In a December 7, 2020, Reuters interview in Rome, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell gestures. After losing his initial appeal, he spent 404 days in solitary until Australia’s seven High Court judges unanimously reversed his conviction, stating it was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

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“I won’t exaggerate how hard that was, but it was horrible. There were many gloomy moments “Pell informed Reuters. Some media outlets violated a court suppression order to cover the controversial trial. According to Clare Leaney, CEO of In Good Faith Foundation, which helps institutional abuse survivors, Pell symbolized a system that prioritized the Catholic Church before individual safety.

“We expect a rise in first-time institutional abuse disclosures due to this revelation.” Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia and the Church lost outstanding sons and leaders. “His incarceration on accusations that the High Court ultimately scathingly dismissed was a modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death,” Abbott tweeted.

“His prison journals should become a classic: a great man battling with a horrible situation and attempting to make sense of unfair misery.” Shine Lawyers continued a civil claim against the church and Pell’s estate on behalf of the father of a former altar boy who claimed Pell sexually molested him.

Pell was smart and athletic, the son of an Anglican gold miner and a devoted Irish Catholic mother. He played professional Australian Rules football in the reserves at 18 but later joined the seminary. He became a Ballarat parish priest after earning an Oxford doctorate in church history.

In the mid-1990s, Pell became archbishop of Melbourne, then Sydney in 2001. The church was heavily criticized in the 1990s for sheltering priests and other church workers who committed sexual offenses and failing to support victims.

Melbourne’s first child sexual abuse compensation plan was created by Pell. Critics later told a government-appointed panel the system was meant to deter victims from suing. The investigation revealed that secrecy and cover-ups in the church and other institutions had frequently failed to protect children.

It also revealed that Pell knew at least two priests had abused children in the 1970s and 1980s but did nothing to remove them. Reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lewis Jackson in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez.

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