ROME (AP) — Cardinal George Pell, a former financial adviser to Pope Francis who spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia for child sex abuse before his convictions were overturned, died Tuesday in Rome. He was 81 years old.
He was a divisive figure. He lived to see Vatican rivals charged with financial crimes after seeking to reform church finances. In Australia, he has been a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the church has been properly held accountable for historic child sexual abuse.
Pell suffered fatal heart complications following hip surgery, said Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Pell’s successor as Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell was in Rome to attend the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI last week.
“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.
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.
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, became the Vatican’s third-highest ranking official after Pope Francis hired him in 2014 to reform the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances as the first Holy Finance Czar. Headquarters.
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 initially found him guilty of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old altar boys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s, shortly after he became Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell spent 404 days in solitary confinement before the full High Court bench unanimously overturned his convictions in 2020.
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 from which went 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 fights to clear his name of a crime he insists is he never committed.
Pell and his supporters believe 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 all that is wrong with the church’s handling of the issue.
“Looking back, I was probably overly optimistic about getting out on bail,” Pell said in a 2021 interview. at his home in Rome, attributing his “glass half full” attitude to his Christian faith.
Even after his acquittal, Pell’s reputation remained tarnished by scandal.
The Australian Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that he was aware of clergy molesting of children in the 1970s and failed to take adequate steps to address it.
Pell later said in a statement that he was “surprised” by the commission’s findings. “These views are not supported by evidence,” Pell’s statement said.
With his rather blunt and no-frills Australian sensibility, Pell frequently clashed with the Vatican’s Italian old guard during the three years he worked to rein in Vatican assets and spending. It was justified when Vatican prosecutors tried 10 people, including his former nemesis, in 2021 for a slew of alleged financial crimes.
After Pell returned to Rome from his release from prison, he had a highly publicized 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 abuse victims criticized the system and the compensation payments, saying they were 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 on which this claim can be based.”
McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia, and Perry from Wellington, New Zealand.