Cardinal George Pell, a leading conservative Roman Catholic and former senior Vatican official acquitted of sex abuse allegations, has died aged 81 in Rome.
Pell died in hospital on Tuesday from heart complications following hip replacement surgery, Archbishop Peter Comensoli said.
Pell, an Australian and once the third-highest-ranking Catholic in the Vatican after serving as Archbishop of Melbourne, returned to his native Australia in 2019 in a bid to clear his name of child sex abuse charges.
In a 2020 decision, an Australian appeals court overturned a conviction for sexually assaulting two altar boys in the 1990s, allowing him to roam free after 13 months in jail.
Earlier, a jury in Victoria’s county court found him guilty of abusing minors at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, shortly after he became Archbishop of Melbourne, sparking a global scandal that shook the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
Pell served as the Vatican’s economy minister from 2014 before taking a leave of absence in 2017 to return home and face charges.
On the day of his acquittal in April 2020, Pope Francis offered a morning Mass for all those suffering “unjust punishments” and likened them to the persecution of Jesus.
“Listen, it was bad, it wasn’t like a vacation, but I don’t want to overstate how difficult it was. But there were many dark moments,” Pell had said of his time there. in prison.
Even after his acquittal, the cardinal’s reputation remained tarnished by child sex abuse scandals.
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found he knew of priests who abused children in the 1970s, but failed to take adequate action.
According to the 2017 report published in May 2020, “In 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only aware of clergy sexual abuse of children, but he also considered steps to avoid situations that might provoke gossip at that time. subject”.
Pell later said in a statement that he was “surprised” by the commission’s findings.
“These opinions are not supported by evidence,” he added.
Pell returned to Rome after his acquittal in the two child sex abuse cases. His career in the Vatican, however, was effectively over.
The cardinal, however, was a polarizing figure before the child sex abuse scandal.
In the two decades he dominated Australia’s Catholic hierarchy, he was despised for his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of women.
Born June 8, 1941, Pell was the eldest of three children of a heavyweight champion boxer and publican also named George Pell. His mother Margaret Lillian was from an Irish Catholic family.
He grew up in the city of Ballarat in the Australian state of Victoria. A talented footballer, the Cardinal was also offered a contract to play for Richmond, but opted for seminary instead.