Cardinal George Pell, an Australian clergyman and advisor to Pope Francis who was the most senior Roman Catholic prelate imprisoned for child sexual abuse and then exonerated of all charges, passed away in Rome on Tuesday. He was 81.
Peter Comensoli, the archbishop of Melbourne, announced the death on Twitter, citing complications from hip replacement surgery as the reason of death. Cardinal Pell travelled to Rome last week to attend Pope Benedict XVI’s burial.
Cardinal Pell was one of Australia’s most influential religious personalities for decades. As the archbishop of the Melbourne diocese and afterwards the Sydney diocese, he opposed abortion vehemently and defended the church against allegations of child abuse.
According to journalist Lucie Morris-Marr, author of “Fallen: The Inside Story of the Secret Trial and Conviction of Cardinal George Pell,” Cardinal Pell’s personal journey, from his humble beginnings in the small Australian town of Ballarat to his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Vatican, was once personally inspirational for many Australian Catholics.
Cardinal Pell was the church’s financial czar and third-in-command from 2014 to 2019, and he attempted to implement changes to make its finances more transparent. In 2017, he was obliged to return to Australia to stand prosecution on claims of sex assault going back to the 1990s, putting an end to these attempts. Australia was captivated by the case; cameras greeted Cardinal Pell at the airport as he arrived from Rome.
In December 2018, he was convicted by an Australian jury of five charges of child sexual assault on two choir boys allegedly committed in Melbourne in 1996. In April 2020, less than two years later, Australia’s highest court reversed the conviction, stating that there was a “significant likelihood” that he was innocent.
Separately, a 2017 Australian government investigation into the decades-long sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children in churches, schools, and other institutions revealed that Cardinal Pell was aware of the sexual abuse of children by other Roman Catholic priests as early as 1974, but did nothing to stop it.
Cardinal Pell was acclaimed in the Vatican for his financial competence and innovative strategies to safeguard the church from being bankrupted by litigation involving allegations of abuse.
On paper, it was an alternate method of conflict resolution for survivors. Cardinal Pell said that the objective was to “make it simpler for victims to get justice” outside of the legal system. However, payouts were originally set at 50,000 Australian dollars, or $35,000, and victims were often required to keep their experiences private.
Cardinal Pell took a similar approach to his position as archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2014.
In his home country of Australia, the reaction to the death of Cardinal Pell was varied. Some stated their sympathies will be with the victims of the Catholic Church’s abuse, while others paid respect to him – in some instances, a subdued tribute. In a statement, Archbishop Comensoli of Melbourne expressed “deep sorrow” at the death of Cardinal Pell.
George Pell was born on June 8, 1941, in Ballarat, Australia parents George Arthur and Margaret Lillian Pell, née Burke. His mother was a devoted Catholic, whereas his father was an indifferent Anglican gold mine boss and heavyweight boxing champion. Margaret, his sister, died in 2021, and David, his brother, outlived him.
Cardinal Pell grew up attending weekly Mass and monthly confession. As a kid, he was an avid athlete and signed a contract to play Australian rules football professionally with the Richmond squad, which he eventually did not accept. In 1959, during his senior year at a Catholic high school, he chose to become a priest.
Cardinal Pell was renowned inside the church for his conservative views, which he believed had made him unpopular with the general population. In a 2020 interview with the BBC, he characterised his manner as “very forthright.”
Cardinal Pell did not contest that the Catholic Church was involved in the sexual abuse of minors, even as he faced his own allegations of sexual assault. He profoundly mourned their pain, but “could sleep very comfortably on most occasions,” he remarked.