Cardinal George Pell, a one-time financial adviser to Pope Francis who spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia on child sex abuse charges before his convictions were overturned, died Tuesday in Rome. He was 81.
Pell suffered fatal heart complications following hip surgery, said Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Pell’s successor as archbishop of Melbourne. Pell had been in Rome to attend the funeral last week of Pope Benedict XVI.
“For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today,” said Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher told reporters the death had come as a shock.
“It will be for historians to assess his impact on the life of the church in Australia and beyond, but it was considerable and will be long lasting,” Fisher said.
Fisher said a requiem for Pell would be held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in the next few days, and in time his body would be brought back to Australia for a funeral mass and buried in the crypt at St. Mary’s Cathedral in 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 impacted by Catholic child sexual abuse and not just those involved in his trial.”
Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, became the third-highest-ranked official in the Vatican after Pope Francis tapped him in 2014 to reform the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances as the Holy See’s first-ever finance czar.
He spent three years as prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, where he tried to impose international budgeting, accounting and transparency standards.
But Pell returned to Australia in 2017 in an attempt to clear his name of child sex charges dating from his time as archbishop.
A Victoria state County Court jury initially convicted him of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s shortly after he had become archbishop of Melbourne. Pell served 404 days in solitary confinement before the full-bench of the High Court unanimously overturned his convictions in 2020.
During his time in prison, Pell kept a diary documenting everything from his prayers and Scripture readings to his conversations with visiting chaplains and the prison guards. The journal turned into a triptych, “Prison Journal,” the proceeds of which went to pay his substantial legal bills.
In the diary, Pell reflected on the nature of suffering, Pope Francis’ papacy and the humiliations of solitary confinement as he battled to clear his name for a crime he insists he never committed.
Pell and his supporters believe he was scapegoated for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse. Victims and critics say he epitomized everything wrong with how the church has dealt with the problem.
“Looking back, I was probably excessively optimistic that I’d get bail,” Pell said in a 2021 interview at his home in Rome, crediting his “glass half-full” attitude to his Christian faith.
Even after he was acquitted, Pell’s reputation remained tarnished by the scandal.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that he knew of clergy molesting children in the 1970s and did not take adequate action to address it.
Pell later said in a statement he was “surprised” by the commission’s findings. “These views are not supported by evidence,” Pell’s statement said.
With his rather brusque, no-nonsense Australian sensibilities, Pell clashed frequently with the Vatican’s Italian old guard during the three years he worked to get a handle on the Vatican’s assets and spending. He was vindicated when Vatican prosecutors put 10 people, including his onetime nemesis, on trial in 2021 for a host of alleged financial crimes.
After Pell returned to Rome following his release from prison, he had a well-publicized private audience with Francis.
“He acknowledged what I was trying to do,” Pell said of the pope during a 2020 interview. “And, you know, I think it’s been sadly vindicated by revelations and developments.”
Francis said as much in a recent interview with Italy’s Mediaset broadcaster, crediting Pell with having set the Vatican on the path of financial transparency and lamenting that he was forced to abandon the effort to face the “calumny” of the abuse charges back home.
“It was Pell who laid out how we could go forward. He’s a great man and we owe him so much,” 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 (nee Burke) was from an Irish Catholic family.
He grew up in the Victorian regional town of Ballarat. At 6 foot, 4 inches tall, he was a talented Australian Rules Footballer. He was offered a professional football contract to play for Richmond but opted for a seminary instead.
While in Melbourne, he set up the Melbourne Response which was a world-first protocol to investigate complaints of clergy sexual abuse and to compensate victims. However many abuse victims were critical of the system and of compensation payments, saying they were designed more to shield 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 otherwise keeping up with news of the church.
“I’ve become very Italian,” Pell told a visitor during a lull of the coronavirus pandemic, which he spent in Rome.
Pell, along with the Melbourne archdiocese, was also battling a civil case back in Australia, which lawyers said Wednesday would continue against Pell’s estate.
That case was brought by the father of a former altar boy who claimed he was sexually abused by Pell. The father claims he suffered psychological effects from the abuse of his son, who died in 2014 from an accidental drug overdose.
“A civil trial likely would have provided the opportunity to cross examine Pell, and truly test his defense against these allegations,” said Lisa Flynn, the chief legal officer of Shine Lawyers. “There is still a great deal of evidence for this claim to rely on.”
A requiem Mass would be celebrated in Rome, but Pell was expected to be buried in Sydney.