Cardinal George Pell, the former head of the Vatican’s finances who was jailed for child sexual abuse before being acquitted on appeal, has died at the age of 81 in Rome.
Pell was one of Pope Francis’s closest advisers and served as Vatican treasurer, tasked with overseeing the budget and reforming the finances of the Holy See.
His death was confirmed by Peter Comensoli, the archbishop of Melbourne, who said that Australia’s most senior figure in the Catholic Church had died overnight from heart complications following hip surgery.
“Cardinal Pell was a very significant and influential church leader, both in Australia and internationally, deeply committed to Christian discipleship,” Mr Comensoli said.
Pell, who had previously served as archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne, stood down after he was convicted on historical child sexual abuse charges in Australia in 2018. He was sentenced to six years in prison, making him the most senior Catholic official to be found guilty of such charges.
However, he was acquitted by Australia’s High Court in 2020 and released from prison after he won an appeal against the conviction. He had served 13 months in prison.
The case garnered significant global attention, but Pell said his trial was not a “referendum on the Catholic Church” and how it handled long-running allegations of child sexual abuse.
Miles Pattenden, a senior research fellow at Australian Catholic University, said Pell was a “champion of conservative values” within the church.
[ Ex-Vatican treasurer Pell failed to remove suspected paedophile priests, inquiry finds ]
Born in the rural gold mining town of Ballarat, Pell’s unlikely path to the Vatican’s senior ranks saw him turn down an offer to play Australian rules football in the 1950s to join the seminary.
Mr Pattenden said that Pell brought his competitive spirit from the brutal sport to the church, where he earned a reputation as a powerful outsider who could get things done. “He was a bruiser. He would push aside opposition,” he said.
That drive propelled a meteoric rise within the church, where he was appointed to the Council of Cardinals in 2003 by the former Pope John Paul II.
Pell’s elevation was later overshadowed when an Australian Royal Commission investigating historical child sexual abuse directly criticised him for failing to confront misconduct by priests in regional churches in the country.
His own case – described as one of the most sensational trials in modern Australian history – transformed Pell into a “polarising figure”, according to Pattenden, with detractors focused on the experiences of victims of abuse and the church’s handling of those claims.
Clare Leaney, chief executive of the In Good Faith Foundation which supports the victims of institutional sexual abuse, said Pell’s death could prompt more people to come forward with details of their experiences of abuse for the first time.
“For many survivors of clerical abuse, particularly here in Australia, George Pell was a symbol of a system that repeatedly put the interests of the Catholic Church above the interest and safety of individuals,” she said in a statement.
Tony Abbott, the former conservative prime minister of Australia, said the church had lost a “saint for our times” and compared Pell’s incarceration with a “modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death”.
Pell’s role in overhauling the Vatican’s financial structures was cut short by his trial. The Vatican eventually moved to fully reform its financial systems after Pell’s retirement following a London property scandal.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023