Cardinal George Pell, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and former Vatican official who was cleared of sexual abuse claims in 2020, passed away on Tuesday, January 10 at the age of 81, according to his private secretary.
Fr. Joseph Hamilton informed Reuters that Pell passed away Tuesday evening at a hospital in Rome. Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli stated that Pell died from cardiac issues following hip surgery.
In 2020, an Australian court of appeal overturned charges that Pell sexually abused two choir boys in the 1990s.
The verdict permitted the then-78-year-old Pell to be released from prison after 13 months, concluding the case of the most senior individual charged in the global scandal of past sex abuse that has shook the Roman Catholic Church.
Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, served as Vatican economy minister from 2014 to 2017, when he took a leave of absence to face the allegations in Australia.
Pell was a divisive figure during the two decades he ruled the Australian Catholic hierarchy, adored by conservative Catholics but reviled by liberals for his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage and women’s ordination. This was true even before the sexual assault claims surfaced.
Since his acquittal, he has been residing in Rome and had many encounters with Pope Francis. Pell frequently attended the pontiff’s Masses, and Francis publicly complimented him upon his return.
Francis offered his morning Mass on the day of Pell’s acquittal in 2020 for all those who suffer from unjust punishments, which he linked to Jesus’ suffering.
Even though he was retired, Pell became well-known in the Vatican area upon his return to Rome. His residence served as a hub for conservatives formulating their program for the eventual election of Francis’ successor.
He was a personal buddy of the recently deceased previous Pope Benedict. However, he disagreed with Benedict’s choice to continue wearing white, claiming that it caused confusion among the faithful. In an interview with Reuters upon his return to Rome, Francis stated that the Church need laws regarding the position of retired popes.
Pell was committed to face trial in May 2018 on several historical sexual offence charges stemming from alleged occurrences in a pool in his hometown of Ballarat in the 1970s and at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s. After a court disallowed key evidence, the so-called swimmers case was dismissed.
Pell, who rejected the claims, did not testify in two trials, the first of which resulted in a deadlocked jury. At the retrial, the jury unanimously convicted him on five counts of assaulting two adolescent choirboys at the cathedral when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell was sentenced to six years in prison, making him the highest-ranking Catholic leader in the world to serve time for child sex abuse. He languished in solitary confinement for 404 days when Australia’s seven High Court judges unanimously reversed his conviction on the grounds that it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Look, it was horrible, it wasn’t a vacation, but I won’t overstate how challenging that was. However, there were several terrible moments,” Pell told Reuters about his time in prison.
Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that both Australia and the Church had lost a wonderful son and leader, respectively.
“His imprisonment on accusations that the High Court finally rejected with contempt was a modern type of crucifixion; reputationally at least, a form of living death,” Abbott said on Twitter. “His jail writings should become a classic: a noble man grappling with a horrible situation and attempting to comprehend the injustice of pain.”
The high-profile case was one of the most controversial in Australia, and several media outlets violated a court suppression order prohibiting coverage of the trial.
Shine Lawyers stated that it is advancing a legal suit on behalf of the father of a former altar boy who alleged Pell sexually molested him.
Shine Lawyers Chief Legal Officer Lisa Flynn stated in a statement, “The claim against the church and Pell’s estate will proceed. There is still a substantial amount of evidence supporting this allegation, and the court will be requested in due time to render a decision based on this evidence.”
Pell, the son of an Anglican gold miner and a devoted Irish Catholic mother, was both intellectually and athletically gifted. At the age of 18, he signed a contract to play professional Australian Rules football and played in the club’s reserves, but he ultimately elected to attend the seminary.
Then, he became a parish priest in Ballarat after earning a PhD in church history from Oxford.
Pell rose to prominence in the mid-1990s, first as the archbishop of Melbourne and then, in 2001, as the archbishop of Sydney. He stood at a towering height of 1.9 meters and weighed 6.3 feet.
Throughout the 1990s, the church was widely criticized for shielding priests and other church employees who had committed sexual offenses and for neglecting to assist their victims.
Pell was proud to have established one of the world’s first compensation programs for child sexual assault victims in Melbourne. However, critics later told a government-appointed commission that the program was intended to discourage victims from pursuing legal action.
The probe, known as a Royal Commission, commenced a five-year examination into child sex abuse inside the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013.
With habits of secrecy and cover-up, the church and other institutions have continually failed to keep children safe. It was also determined that Pell was aware of at least two priests’ sexual abuse of children between the 1970s and 1980s, but did nothing to have them removed.