Pope Francis on Wednesday paid tribute to Cardinal George Pell, who spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia before his child sex convictions were overturned, praising his diligence in reforming the Vatican’s finances and his faith “even in the hour of trial.”
Francis sent a telegram of condolences to the head of the College of Cardinals, expressing his “sadness” over Pell’s death and relaying his prayers and sympathy to the Australian prelate’s family.
Pell died Tuesday in Rome, where he had attended the funeral last week of Pope Benedict XVI. Pell suffered fatal heart complications following hip surgery, said Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Pell’s successor as archbishop of Melbourne. He was 81.
He was a divisive figure. He lived to see Vatican rivals charged with financial crimes after he worked to reform the Holy See’s finances. In Australia, he was a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church had been properly held to account for historic child sex abuse.
Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher told reporters the death had come as a shock.
“It will be for historians to assess his impact on the life of the church in Australia and beyond, but it was considerable and will be long lasting,” Fisher said.
“For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today,” said Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Fisher said a requiem for Pell would be held at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in the next few days, and in time his body would be brought back to Australia for a funeral Mass and buried in the crypt at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.
Journalist Lucie Morris-Marr, who wrote the book “Fallen” about Pell’s trial, said on Twitter that Pell’s death “will be terribly triggering for many Australians impacted by Catholic child sexual abuse and not just those involved in his trial.”
Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, became the third-highest ranked official in the Vatican after Pope Francis tapped him in 2014 to reform the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances as the Holy See’s first-ever finance czar.
He spent three years as prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, where he tried to impose international budgeting, accounting and transparency standards.
But Pell returned to Australia in 2017 in an attempt to clear his name of child sex charges dating from his time as archbishop.
A Victoria state County Court jury convicted him of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the latest 1990s shortly after he had become archbishop of Melbourne. An initial trial had ended in a jury deadlock. Pell served 404 days in solitary confinement before the full-bench of the High Court unanimously overturned his convictions in 2020 on appeal.
The High Court found there was reasonable doubt surrounding the testimony of the main witness, now the father of a young family aged in his 30s, who said Pell had abused him and another choirboy.
In the telegram, Francis praised Pell’s consistent dedication to the church “and particularly the diligent co-operation given to the Holy See in the context of its recent economic reform, of which he laid the foundation with determination and wisdom.”
Francis said he was praying for the “faithful servant who has followed his Lord with perseverance even in the hour of trial.”
During his time in prison, Pell kept a diary documenting everything from his prayers and Scripture readings to his conversations with visiting chaplains and the prison guards. The journal turned into a triptych, “Prison Journal,” the proceeds of which went to pay his substantial legal bills.
In the diary, Pell reflected on the nature of suffering, Pope Francis’ papacy and the humiliations of solitary confinement as he battled to clear his name for a crime he insisted he never committed.
Pell and his supporters believed he was scapegoated for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse. Victims and critics say he epitomized everything wrong with how the church has dealt with the problem, pointing in particular to a widely circulated photo of a young Pell accompanying a notorious abuser, Gerald Risdale, to court.
The U.S. survivor group SNAP bitterly complained that Pell’s “serious wrongdoing is already ignored and minimized by the church’s hierarchy.” It accused him of covering up clergy sex crimes. “His true sentence begins with death,” the group tweeted.
Pell strongly denied his own abuse allegations and repeatedly defended his response to the abuse scandal while a bishop and later the archbishop of Melbourne, though he acknowledged the Catholic hierarchy as a whole had made “enormous mistakes.” He expressed regret over encounters with victims seeking compensation, saying he and others in the church failed in their moral and pastoral responsibilities to them.
Anthony Foster testified at one of Australia’s inquiries into abuse that when he and his wife sought compensation over the abuse their daughters suffered, Pell showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy.”
Even after he was acquitted of the Melbourne allegations, Pell’s reputation remained tarnished by the scandal and in particular his handling of other priests who abused children and his treatment of victims. Australian inquiries concluded that Pell created a victims’ compensation program mainly to limit the church’s liability, and that he aggressively tried to discourage victims from pursuing lawsuits.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the highest form of inquiry in the country, also found that he knew of clergy molesting children in the 1970s and did not take adequate action to address it.
Pell had testified remotely to the Royal Commission over four days in Rome in 2016, a remarkable moment in the history of the church’s reckoning with abuse that saw a top Vatican cardinal sitting in a hotel conference room answering questions via video link from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. each night, with victims, journalists and supporters in the audience.
The late-night hours were set to accommodate Australian time zones after Pell argued that his heart condition made flying too dangerous. But it had the effect of amplifying testimony that might have remained confined to Australia to a global audience.
After his testimony, Pell met with Australian survivors who had travelled to Rome to hear him in person. He acknowledged that he had failed to act on an allegation a decade ago and vowed to work to put an end to the rash of suicides in his Australian hometown of Ballarat, where scores of people had taken their lives as a result of the trauma of their abuse.
“We now know it was one of the very worst places in Australia” for child sex crimes, Pell said at the time.
After he was held responsible for failing to take adequate action by the Royal Commission, Pell said he was surprised by the findings and that they weren’t “supported by evidence.”
With his rather brusque, no-nonsense Australian sensibilities, Pell clashed frequently with the Vatican’s Italian old guard during the years he worked to get a handle on the Vatican’s assets and spending. He was vindicated when Vatican prosecutors put 10 people, including his onetime nemesis, on trial in 2021 for a host of alleged financial crimes.
The ongoing trial against Cardinal Angelo Becciu, during Pell’s tenure the No. 2 in the secretariat of state, mostly concerns the office’s 350 million euro investment in a London real estate deal. Pell’s biggest battle had been to wrest control of the office’s asset portfolio, which remained off the Holy See’s balance sheets and was managed by a few inexperienced monsignors and laymen who lost the Vatican tens of millions in euros.
Only in the last year, nearly a decade after Pell first announced that he had uncovered nearly 1 billion euros in unreported assets, has Francis ordered the secretariat of state’s entire financial portfolio moved into the Vatican’s centralized patrimony office for more professional management and accounting.
After Pell returned to Rome following his release from prison in 2020, he had a well-publicized private audience with Francis.
“He acknowledged what I was trying to do,” Pell said of the pope during a 2020 interview. “And, you know, I think it’s been sadly vindicated by revelations and developments.”
Francis said as much in a recent interview with Italy’s Mediaset broadcaster, crediting Pell with having set the Vatican on the path of financial transparency and lamenting that he was forced to abandon the effort to face the “calumny” of the abuse charges back home.
“It was Pell who laid out how we could go forward. He’s a great man and we owe him so much,” Francis said last month.
Pell was born on June 8, 1941, the eldest of three children to a heavyweight champion boxer and publican also named George Pell, an Anglican. His mother Margaret Lillian (nee Burke) was from an Irish Catholic family.
He grew up in the Victorian regional town of Ballarat. At 193 centimeters (6 foot, 4 inches) tall, he was a talented Australian Rules Footballer. He was offered a professional football contract to play for Richmond but opted for a seminary instead.
While in Melbourne, he set up the Melbourne Response which was a world-first protocol to investigate complaints of clergy sexual abuse and to compensate victims. However many abuse victims criticized the system as being designed more to shield the church from litigation.
After his convictions were overturned, Pell divided his time between Sydney and Rome, where he took part in the typical life of a retired cardinal, attending Vatican events and liturgical feasts and otherwise keeping up with news of the church.
“I’ve become very Italian,” Pell told a visitor during a lull of the coronavirus pandemic, which he spent in Rome.
Pell, along with the Melbourne archdiocese, was also battling a civil case back in Australia, which lawyers said Wednesday would continue against Pell’s estate.
That case was brought by the father of a former altar boy who claimed he was sexually abused by Pell. The father claims he suffered psychological effects from the abuse of his son, who died in 2014 from an accidental drug overdose.
“A civil trial likely would have provided the opportunity to cross examine Pell, and truly test his defence against these allegations,” said Lisa Flynn, the chief legal officer of Shine Lawyers. “There is still a great deal of evidence for this claim to rely on.”