The death at age 81 of Cardinal George Pell follows his shocking conviction on child abuse charges that were later overturned. The former Vatican treasurer is the most senior Church figure ever imprisoned for such offenses, as well as the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in Australia.
Church authorities state that he died of heart failure following hip surgery.
Prior to his role as one of the Pope’s closest advisors, Cardinal Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney.
Often referred to as the Church’s “third-ranking official,” he was called to Rome in 2014 to clean up the Vatican’s finances.
In 2017, however, the cleric resigned and returned to Australia to stand trial on charges of sexual abuse of a minor.
In 2018, a jury found him guilty of abusing two boys in the 1990s, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
Although he was always convinced of his innocence, Cardinal Pell was convicted and sentenced to 13 months in prison before the High Court of Australia overturned the decision in 2020.
However, the father of a choirboy who prosecutors say was abused by Cardinal Pell has filed a civil lawsuit against him.
In the meantime, a landmark inquiry in found that he had known about priests sexually abusing children in Australia as early as the 1970s but did nothing to stop it.
After conducting thousands of interviews over the course of several years, the results of the Child Abuse Royal Commission will be made public in 2020. The cardinal said the claim was “not supported by evidence” and therefore was false.
Cardinal Pell was described as “a very significant and influential Church leader” by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, and as a “shock to many” by the Prime Minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese.
Catholic ex-prime minister Tony Abbott called the charges against the cleric “a modern form of crucifixion” and referred to him as a “saint for our times” and “an inspiration for the ages.”
A government minister in Cardinal Pell’s home state of Victoria, Steve Dimopoulos, was among those who expressed ambivalence.
Survivors and victims of child sexual abuse and their families are in his thoughts on “what must be a very difficult day for the cardinal’s family and loved ones,” he said.
The cardinal acknowledged that he had been a divisive figure in Australia and around the world.
He gained notoriety as a leader in the Catholic Church by staunchly defending the Church’s traditional teachings, including the importance of a priest’s chastity and the primacy of family over ministry.
In an interview with the BBC in the year 2020, Cardinal Pell admitted that he had alienated some people with his “direct” style and traditional approach to issues like abortion.
The fact that I defend Christian teachings is irritating to a lot of people,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday program.