Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of child sex abuse before the conviction was overturned in 2020, has died, according to his secretary. He was 81 years old.
Father Joseph Hamilton confirmed Pell’s death on Tuesday evening local time after he was admitted to a hospital in Rome for hip replacement surgery. Hamilton said that while the operation was successful, Pell later went into cardiac arrest.
Born in the regional town of Ballarat, Australia, on June 8, 1941, Pell rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church to become treasurer of the Vatican, considered by many to be the third highest office in the church
He served in the role from 2014 to 2019 in charge of Pope Francis’ financial reforms, which were largely stalled when he was recalled to Australia to deal with allegations of historic sex abuse.
Pell was convicted of the charges in 2018 and served 13 months in prison before the High Court of Australia overturned his conviction in April 2020. Pell strongly denied the charges, which he dismissed in a police interview in 2016 as a “product of fantasy”.
In its two-page summary of the judgment, the Court said that the jury “should have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt” and ordered that the convictions be overturned.
In a statement, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher expressed his sadness at Pell’s death. “This news comes as a great shock to all of us. Please pray for the repose of Cardinal Pell’s soul, comfort and solace for his family and all those who loved him and they are grieving at this time,” he said in a Facebook post.
When asked about Pell’s death on Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had conveyed his condolences to Fisher on behalf of the government. “For many people, especially of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I extend my condolences to all who are grieving,” he said.
Pell is a divisive figure in Australia and many on Twitter took to the occasion of his death to express their support for survivors of child sexual abuse.
Pell was ordained a Catholic priest in December 1966 and later studied in Rome, Oxford and Cambridge.
He returned to Australia in 1971 and for the next two decades served as a priest in small parishes in Victoria and New South Wales.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Melbourne, where Pell launched one of the Catholic Church’s first programs to address allegations of sexual abuse, called the Melbourne Response. Critics say it was aimed at preventing scandals and could have been more generous to victims.
Pell became Archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and Cardinal in 2003. both under John Paul II, and as a member of the College of Cardinals, he was among the group of senior church officials who elected the late Pope Benedict in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013.
In 2014, Pell moved to Rome after being hand-picked by Pope Francis to be the Vatican’s treasurer and one of nine advisers to the Pope’s Council of Cardinals.
Pell has also been outspoken about his views against same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.
At the Fota VIII International Liturgy Conference in Cork, Ireland, in 2015, Pell said Western society was abandoning many of its Christian legal foundations by passing same-sex marriage laws.
While in Rome, Pell was called to testify before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about his knowledge of and role in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases Catholicism in Australia.
In unredacted findings released in 2020, the commission found that Pell had known about sexual abuse at the church but failed to report it to police.
Announced in 2012 under former prime minister Julia Gillard, the royal commission interviewed almost 8,000 survivors of child sexual abuse over five years and referred more than 2,500 cases to the police.
As early as 1973, Pell “was not only aware of the sexual abuse of children by the clergy, but had also considered measures to avoid situations that might lead to gossip about it,” according to the report.
In 2017, Victoria Police announced that Pell had been charged with multiple historical assault offences.
His first trial ended in a hung jury when all 12 jurors failed to reach a verdict after several days of deliberation. The second trial resulted in a six-year prison sentence that began on March 13, 2019, sending shockwaves through the church.
The prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of a man who said Pell sexually abused him and a fellow choir member after Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on a Sunday when Pell was Archbishop. At the time, the boys were 13 years old.
The second man did not tell anyone about the attack and killed himself in 2014 before the allegations surfaced.
The only alleged witness claimed that Pell cornered them in the priest’s sacristy and forced them to perform sexual acts. No one witnessed the alleged attack and there was no physical evidence. The alleged victim’s testimony has never been released, but the jury found it so compelling that it reached a unanimous guilty verdict.
During his stay in prison, he wrote a diary that was later published in Italian by Cantagalli Publishing. He said he was kept in solitary confinement for his own protection and called sexual abuse within the church “a kind of spiritual and moral cancer,” Vatican News reported.
In 2020, an Australian high court unanimously overturned his conviction on five counts of historic child sexual abuse and ordered that the convictions be quashed and acquittals entered in their place.
On Tuesday, lawyers representing the family of the late former chorister said they would continue their civil suit over the allegations against the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and Pell’s estate.
“A civil trial would likely have provided an opportunity to cross-examine Pell and really test his defense against these allegations,” the Shine Lawyers statement said. “There is still a large body of evidence on which this claim is based, and the court will be asked in due course to make its decision on that evidence,” he added.
Albanese said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was providing assistance to bring Mr Pell’s body to Australia, where his remains will be buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.