Cardinal George Pell, a powerful but divisive figure in the Catholic Church, dies at 81

Cardinal George Pell, a powerful but divisive figure in the Catholic Church, dies at 81

Cardinal George Pell, a powerful but divisive figure in the Catholic Church, dies at 81

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, March 5, 2018, in Melbourne, Australia.

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Rome — Cardinal George Pell, former financial adviser to Pope Francis, who spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia before his convictions for child sexual abuse were overthrown, died at the age of 81.

He was a divisive figure. He lived to see Vatican rivals charged with financial crimes after working to reform the finances of the Holy See. In Australia, he has been a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held accountable for historic child sexual abuse.

Pell died Tuesday in Rome, where he attended the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI last week. Pell suffered fatal heart complications following hip surgery, said Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Pell’s successor as Archbishop of Melbourne.

Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher told reporters the death came as a shock.

“It will be for historians to assess its impact on church life in Australia and beyond, but it was far-reaching and will last a long time,” Fisher said.


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“For many people, especially of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all who mourn today,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said.

Fisher said a requiem for Pell would be held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in the coming days and in time his body would be taken back to Australia for a funeral mass and buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Mary from Sydney. .

Journalist Lucie Morris-Marr, who wrote the book ‘Fallen’ about Pell’s trial, said on Twitter that Pell’s death “will be terribly triggering for many Australians affected by Catholic child sexual abuse and not just for those involved in his trial”.

Pell, the former Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, has become the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official after the Pope Francois tapped him in 2014 to reform the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances as the first finance czar of the Holy See.


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He spent three years as prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, where he tried to impose international standards for budgeting, accounting and transparency.

But Pell returned to Australia in 2017 to try to clear his name of child molestation charges from his time as archbishop.

A Victoria County Court jury found him guilty of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old altar boys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s, shortly after he was became Archbishop of Melbourne. A first trial had ended in a jury deadlock. Pell spent 404 days in solitary confinement before the full High Court bench unanimously overturned his 2020 convictions on appeal.

The High Court found there was a reasonable doubt surrounding the testimony of the main witness, now the father of a young family in his thirties, who said Pell abused him and a another altar boy.

While in prison, Pell kept a journal documenting everything from his prayers and scripture readings to his conversations with visiting chaplains and prison guards. The newspaper turned into a triptych, “Prison Journal”, the proceeds of which were used to pay his large legal bills.

In the diary, Pell reflects on the nature of suffering, the papacy of Pope Francis and the humiliations of solitary confinement as he struggles to clear his name of a crime he insists he never committed.

Pell and his supporters believed he was the scapegoat for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sex abuse. Victims and critics say he epitomized everything wrong with the church’s handling of the issue, pointing in particular to a widely circulated photo of a young Pell accompanying notorious abuser, Gerald Risdale, outside the tribunal.


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American survivor group SNAP bitterly complained that “Pell’s serious wrongdoing is already being ignored and downplayed by the church hierarchy”. He accused him of covering up clergy sex crimes. “His real pain begins with death,” the band tweeted.

Pell has strongly denied his own abuse allegations and repeatedly defended his response to the abuse scandal while bishop and later Archbishop of Melbourne, although he acknowledged that the Catholic hierarchy as a whole had committed “huge mistakes”. He expressed regret over encounters with victims seeking compensation, saying he and other church members failed in their moral and pastoral responsibilities to them.

Anthony Foster testified at one of Australia’s abuse inquiries that when he and his wife sought compensation for abuse suffered by their daughters, Pell displayed a “lack of sociopathic empathy”.

Even after being acquitted of the Melbourne allegations, Pell’s reputation remained tarnished by the scandal and in particular his handling of other priests who abused children and his treatment of victims. The Australian inquests concluded that Pell created a victim compensation program primarily to limit the church’s liability and that he aggressively tried to discourage victims from suing.


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Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the country’s highest form of inquiry, also found it was aware of clergy molesting children in the 1970s and failed to take appropriate measures to remedy it.

Pell had testified remotely before the Royal Commission for four days in Rome in 2016, a remarkable moment in the history of the church’s consideration of abuse that saw a Vatican cardinal seated in a conference room at hotel answer questions via video link from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. each night, with victims, reporters and supporters in the audience.

Late evening hours were set to accommodate Australian time zones after Pell argued his heart condition made flying too dangerous. But it had the effect of amplifying testimonies that might have remained confined to Australia to a global audience.

After his testimony, Pell met with Australian survivors who had traveled to Rome to hear him in person. He admitted he failed to follow up on an allegation a decade ago and pledged to work to end the eruption of suicides in his Australian hometown of Ballarat, where dozens of people had lost their lives as a result of the trauma of abusing them.

“We now know it was one of the worst places in Australia” for child sex crimes, Pell said at the time.

After being held responsible for failing to take adequate action by the Royal Commission, Pell said he was surprised by the findings and that they were not “supported by evidence”.

With his rather blunt, no-frills Australian sensibility, Pell frequently clashed with the Vatican’s Italian old guard during the years he worked to rein in Vatican assets and spending. He was exonerated when Vatican prosecutors tried 10 people, including his former nemesis, in 2021 for a host of alleged financial crimes.

The ongoing lawsuit against Cardinal Angelo Becciu, when Pell was No. 2 in the Secretariat of State, mainly concerns the office’s €350 million investment in a London property deal. Pell’s biggest battle had been gaining control of the office’s portfolio of assets, which remained off the Holy See’s balance sheets and was managed by a few inexperienced monsignors and lay people who lost tens of millions of euros to the Vatican. .

It was only last year, nearly a decade after Pell first announced he had uncovered nearly a billion euros in undeclared assets, that Francis ordered that the the entire financial portfolio of the Secretariat of State be transferred to the centralized office of Vatican heritage for more professional management and accounting.

After Pell returned to Rome from his release from prison in 2020, he had a high-profile private audience with Francis.

“He recognized what I was trying to do,” Pell said of Pope in a 2020 interview. “And, you know, I think that was unfortunately vindicated by revelations and developments.”

Francis said so in a recent interview with Italian broadcaster Mediaset, crediting Pell with setting the Vatican on the path to financial transparency and lamenting that he was forced to abandon the effort to cope. to the “slander” of abuse charges in his country.

“It was Pell who explained how we could move forward. He’s a great man and we owe him a lot,” Francis said last month.

Pell was born on June 8, 1941, the eldest of three children to a heavyweight champion boxer and publican also named George Pell, an Anglican. His mother Margaret Lillian (née Burke) was from an Irish Catholic family.

He grew up in the regional Victorian town of Ballarat. Standing 193 centimeters (6 ft 4 in), he was a talented Australian footballer. He was offered a professional football contract to play for Richmond, but opted for a seminar instead.

While in Melbourne, he set up the Melbourne Response, a world-first protocol for investigating complaints of clergy sexual abuse and compensating victims. However, many victims of abuse have criticized the system as being designed more to protect the church from litigation.

After his convictions were overturned, Pell divided his time between Sydney and Rome, where he took part in the typical life of a retired cardinal, attending Vatican events and liturgical feasts and keeping abreast of church news.

“I’ve become very Italian,” Pell told a visitor during a lull in the coronavirus pandemic, which he spent in Rome.

Pell, along with the Archdiocese of Melbourne, was also fighting a civil case in Australia, which lawyers said would continue against Pell’s estate on Wednesday.

This case was brought by the father of a former altar boy who claimed he was sexually abused by Pell. The father claims to have suffered psychological consequences following the abuse of his son, who died in 2014 of an accidental drug overdose.

“A civil trial likely would have provided an opportunity to cross-examine Pell and really test his defense against these allegations,” said Lisa Flynn, chief legal officer of Shine Lawyers. “There is still a lot of evidence to support this claim.

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