Cardinal George Pell, the top Catholic official convicted of child sexual abuse before the verdict was overturned in 2020, has died, according to his secretary. He turned 81.
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 surgery was successful, Pell subsequently 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 most senior position within the Church.
He served in that role from 2014 to 2019 and was responsible for Pope Francis’s financial reforms, which largely stalled when he was recalled to Australia over allegations of historic sexual abuse.
Pell was convicted of those charges in 2018 and served 13 months in prison before the Australian Supreme Court overturned his conviction in April 2020. Pell strongly denied the charges, which he dismissed as a “product of fantasy” in a 2016 police interview.
In the two-page summary of the ruling, the Supreme Court said the jury should have “had doubts about the guilt of the applicant” and ordered the convictions set aside.
In a statement, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher expressed his grief over Pell’s death. “This news comes as a great shock to all of us. Please pray for the peace of mind of Cardinal Pell, for comfort and comfort to his family and to all those who loved and grieved him 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 sent 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 those grieving,” he said.
Pell is a divisive figure in Australia and many on Twitter took the occasion of his death to show their support for the survivors of child sexual abuse.
Pell was ordained a Catholic priest in December 1966 and went on to study in Rome, Oxford and Cambridge.
He returned to Australia in 1971 and spent the next two decades serving 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 initiated one of the first programs in the Catholic Church to address allegations of sexual abuse, called the Melbourne Response. Critics say it was intended to avoid scandal and could have been more generous to the 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 ecclesiastical officials who elected the late Pope Benedict in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013.
In 2014, Pell moved to Rome after Pope Francis selected him to serve as Vatican Treasurer and one of nine advisers on the Pope’s Council of Cardinals.
Pell was also outspoken about his stance against same-sex marriage, abortion, and birth control.
At the 2015 Fota VIII International Liturgy Conference in Cork, Ireland, 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 handling of sexual abuse cases by the Catholic Church in Australia.
In unredacted findings published in 2020, the commission found that Pell knew about sexual abuse at the church but did not report it to the police.
Announced in 2012 under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the royal commission interviewed nearly 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 clergy sexual abuse of children, but that he had also considered measures to avoid situations that might provoke gossip about it,” the report said.
In 2017, Victoria Police announced that Pell had been charged with multiple historic assaults.
His first trial ended in a hung jury when the 12 jurors failed to reach a verdict after several days of deliberation. The second trial resulted in a six-year prison sentence that took effect on March 13, 2019 and sent shockwaves through the church.
The prosecution’s case hinged on the testimony of a man who said Pell sexually assaulted him and a fellow choirboy after mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne on a Sunday when Pell was archbishop. The boys were then 13 years old.
The second man told no one about the attack and took his own life 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 was never released, but the jury found him so convincing that they reached a unanimous guilty verdict.
During his time in prison, he wrote a diary which was later published in Italian by Cantagalli Publishing House. He said he was kept in solitary confinement for his own protection and called sexual abuse within the church “a kind of mental and moral cancer,” Vatican News reported.
Pell appealed the verdict, which was upheld by Victoria’s Court of Appeal. His legal team then took the case to the Supreme Court of Australia, and in 2020 the Supreme Court ruled that the appellate judges had erred in their assessment of the case.
The Supreme Court ruled that they should have found the jury must have harbored some doubt about Pell’s guilt. The court subsequently ruled that his conviction on five counts of historic child sexual abuse should be overturned. Judgments of the country’s highest court cannot be challenged.
On Tuesday, despite Pell’s death, lawyers representing the family of the late former choirboy said they would file their civil claim 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 lot of evidence for this claim and the court will be asked to rule on that evidence in due course,” it added.
Albanese said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was helping to return Pell’s body to Australia, where his remains will be buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.