Cardinal George Pell, convicted and then acquitted of child sex abuse, dies at 81

Cardinal George Pell, a conservative theologian who served as the Vatican’s finance chief for Pope Francis and who was acquitted after becoming the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sex abuse, died on Tuesday in Rome. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by Peter Comensoli, one of his successors as archbishop of Melbourne, who said the cardinal died of heart complications following hip surgery. Cardinal Pell was in Rome to attend The funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI last week.

Cardinal Pell spent more than a year in solitary confinement in his native Australia after a jury found him guilty in 2018 of assaulting two teenagers in a Melbourne cathedral while he was the city’s archbishop in the 1990s. His conviction was overturned by an Australian high court in 2020.

The cardinal remains a polarizing figure in Australia and the church even after his acquittal. For his opponents, he was a symbol of the violence crisis. To his supporters, he was a scapegoat who was targeted by the church’s enemies.

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Cardinal Pell, who also served as the Archbishop of Sydney, established one of the world’s first programs to compensate victims of child sexual abuse. But critics say he presided over a culture of secrecy, using the program — which required victims to waive their right to civil legal action — to silence them.

A top-level Australian inquiry known as a Royal Commissionlaunched an investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It found the cardinal knew of abuse of children by clergy in the 1970s but did not take sufficient steps to address it with this.

The cardinal told the inquiry in 2016 that he did not know whether the crimes of Gerald Ridsdale, a priest who was moved from parish to parish by the church in the 1970s and 1980s and later convicted on dozens of charges of sexual abuse of children were common culture.

“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” Cardinal Pell told the inquiry. “The suffering was real, of course, and I am very sorry for it, but I had no reason to call attention to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had done.”

Cardinal Pell gave evidence to the inquiry via video link from Rome after his lawyers told him he was too unwell to travel to Australia. Pell suffers from hypertension, heart disease and cardiac dysfunction, and a doctor has concluded that the long-haul flight is dangerous to his health.

George Pell was born in Ballarat, a gold-mining town in the Australian state of Victoria, on June 8, 1941. His father was a non-practicing Anglican and heavyweight boxing champion. His mother was a devout Catholic.

He played Australian rules football in his youth and his natural athleticism and towering frame – he was well over 6ft tall – saw him sign a major club contract while still a teenager. Instead, he chose to pursue a clerical career and was ordained at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1966.

He quickly rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming the most influential Australian in the history of the clergy and an ally of Pope Benedict when he led the church and later of Pope Francis. (Benedict paid a rare visit to Australia in 2008)

Cardinal Pell had strong views on contemporary social issues, including same-sex relationships, abortion and the role of women in the clergy. He developed close ties with Australia’s conservative political elite, including former prime minister Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic who visited him in jail.

In a 2001 radio interview, the cardinal suggested that couples considering divorce should be offered financial incentives to stay together. In the same interview he said there was “no way” the church would ever have female priests. He once described the film Avatar – which at the time was the highest-grossing film in Australian history – as “old-fashioned heathen propaganda”.

In 2002, Cardinal Pell was criticized by victims’ support groups for his remark that “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people”. He declined to comment when questioned by the Sydney Morning Herald days lateralthough he claims his original statement was quoted out of context because it did not include his condemnation of sexual abuse in the church.

In contrast to his staunchly conservative stance on the church’s moral teachings, the cardinal was a financial reformer who was recruited to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2014 and tasked with reviewing its finances. This focus on transparency – honed in his early years in Australia – brought him into conflict with church bureaucracy over his attempts to audit Assets and expenses of the Vatican.

Although Cardinal Pell’s career was effective derailed when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against sexual assault allegations, one legacy of his time on the books was a spiraling Vatican corruption an investigation.

In a statement on Wednesday, Abbott, a right-wing former prime minister, described Cardinal Pell’s imprisonment as “a modern form of crucifixion; reputation is at least a kind of living death.’

IN 2018 sexual assault at trial, the prosecution referred to the testimony of a former chorister who was then in his 30s and had a young family. He reported the alleged abuse to police in 2015 after another former chorister died of a drug overdose. The other chorister did not make public accusations against Cardinal Pell. (A separate sexual assault case was dropped by prosecutors after the trial began.)

Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name was not made public, said he respected the acquittal and accepted the outcome. He said this highlighted the difficulty in child sexual abuse cases of convincing a criminal court that the offense was committed beyond reasonable doubt.

“This is a very high standard to meet – a heavy burden,” he said in a statement at the time. “But the price we pay for tipping the system in favor of the accused is that many sex crimes against children go unpunished.”

Miles Pattendon, a historian at the Australian Catholic University, said the cardinal was a “hugely polarizing figure” and admired by a minority of Australian Catholics for his defense of traditional morality.

But many Australians saw him as “complicit in the cover-up of child sexual abuse”, Pattenden said, and as someone who was “behind some of the already convicted priest abusers to an extent that was not reasonable”.

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