Cardinal George Pell has died at age 81. His conviction on charges of child abuse shocked the Catholic Church before it was overturned.
The former Vatican treasurer is the highest-ranking Catholic priest in Australia and the highest-ranking church leader who has ever been jailed for similar crimes.
Church officials say he died of heart problems after hip surgery.
Before becoming one of the Pope’s top aides, Cardinal Pell was the Archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney. He was sent to Rome in 2014 to clean up the Vatican’s finances. He was often called the third-highest official in the church.
But the priest left his job in 2017 and went back to Australia to face charges of sexual abuse of a child.
In 2018, a jury found that, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, he had abused two boys. Cardinal Pell, who always said he was innocent, spent 13 months in prison before the High Court of Australia overturned the verdict in 2020.
But a civil case brought by the father of a choirboy whom prosecutors say Cardinal Pell abused is still going on. In the meantime, a landmark investigation found that he knew that priests in Australia were sexually abusing children as early as the 1970s but did nothing about it.
The Child Abuse Royal Commission met for several years and talked to thousands of people. After Cardinal Pell was found not guilty, the report’s findings about him were made public. Cardinal Pell denied the claim, saying that there was no evidence to back it up.
Cardinal Pell was remembered by the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, as “a very important and influential church leader.” The Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, said that many people would be “shocked” by his death.
Tony Abbott, a former prime minister and a Catholic, called the cleric a “Saint for Our Times” and “An Inspiration for the Ages.” He also called the charges he was facing “a modern form of crucifixion.”
But Steve Dimopoulos, a government minister in Victoria, the state where Cardinal Pell lives, was one of the people who said they had mixed feelings.
“Today would be a very hard day for the Cardinal’s family and loved ones, but it would also be a very hard day for survivors and victims of child sexual abuse and their families, and my thoughts are with them,” he said.
Both in Australia and around the world, the Cardinal was a controversial figure, which he himself admitted. He became well known in the church because he was a strong supporter of traditional Catholic values. He often had conservative ideas and pushed for priests to be celibate.
Cardinal Pell told the BBC in 2020 that there was “no doubt” that his “direct” style and traditional way of thinking about things like abortion had turned some people against him.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme, “The fact that I defend Christian teachings bothers a lot of people.”
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