George Pell, cardinal whose abuse conviction was overturned, dies at 81
Australian Cardinal George Pell is interviewed at the Vatican, Thursday, May 20, 2021.
By NATASHA FROST and DAMIEN CAVE
Cardinal George Pell, an Australian cleric and adviser to Pope Francis who became the most senior Roman Catholic prelate to be sent to prison for child sexual abuse and was later acquitted of all charges, died Tuesday in Rome. He was 81.
The cause was complications of hip replacement surgery, according to Peter Comensoli, the archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, who confirmed the death in a post on Twitter. Pell had gone to Rome to attend the funeral last week of Pope Benedict XVI.
Pell was for decades one of Australia’s most powerful religious figures. A former athlete with a formidable intellect and a combative streak, he was a conservative voice heard regularly in the media, opposing abortion while defending the church against accusations of child abuse as the archbishop of the Melbourne diocese and then the Sydney diocese.
His personal story, from his origins in the tiny town of Ballarat to his rise through the ranks of the Vatican, had at one time been inspirational to many Australian Catholics, said journalist Lucie Morris-Marr, the author of “Fallen: The Inside Story of the Secret Trial and Conviction of Cardinal George Pell” (2019).
“He was really seen as a success story, a superstar, in effect,” Morris-Marr said. “But, of course, the trajectory of his career and reputation have been terribly, irrevocably damaged, because of the child abuse allegations.”
From 2014 to 2019, Pell was the Vatican’s financial czar and third-in-command, and he tried to push through reforms to make its finances more transparent. Those efforts were truncated in 2017, when he was forced to return to Australia to face trial on charges of sex abuse dating to the 1990s. The case transfixed Australia — cameras met him at the airport when he arrived from Rome.
In December 2018, Pell was convicted by an Australian jury of five counts of child sexual abuse; the crimes, against two choir boys, were said to have occurred in 1996, during his time in Melbourne. He was sentenced to six years in prison in March 2019. Less than two years later, in April 2020, Australia’s highest court overturned the conviction, saying there was “a significant possibility” that he was not guilty.
Pell maintained his innocence throughout the proceedings, portraying himself, in a news conference in Rome in 2017, as a victim of “relentless character assassination.”
“The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” he said.
At his death, Pell was facing a civil suit by the father of a now-deceased former choir boy contending that the cleric abused the boy when he was archbishop of Melbourne. In a statement, the claimant’s lawyer said the suit would continue, adding: “There is still a great deal of evidence for this claim to rely upon.”
Separately, a 2017 Australian government inquiry into the abuse of tens of thousands of children in churches, schools and other institutions over decades found that Pell had been aware of the sexual abuse of children by other Roman Catholic priests as early as 1974 but had failed to take action.
At the Vatican, Pell had been lauded for his financial expertise and creative methods to protect the church from being bankrupted by cases involving claims of abuse.
His promotion to Vatican treasurer in Rome followed a period of leadership in Australia during which church attendance declined but the institution’s finances were secured. As archbishop of Melbourne, in October 1996 — two months before the alleged incidents that led to his conviction — Pell set up what would become a firewall for the church’s finances and reputation in connection with abuse accusations. He called it “The Melbourne Response.”
On paper, the “response” was an alternative resolution process for survivors. Pell said it aimed to “make it easier for victims to achieve justice” outside the courts. But it capped payments, initially at 50,000 Australian dollars ($35,000), and usually forced victims to keep their traumas confidential.
Pell brought a similar approach to Sydney, where he was archbishop from 2001 to 2014.
The response to his death in his native Australia was divided. Some said their thoughts would be with the victims of those abused by the Catholic Church, while others paid tribute to him — muted tribute, in some cases. In a statement, Comensoli of Melbourne expressed “great sadness” at Pell’s death. “May eternal light now be his, who so steadfastly believed in the God of Jesus Christ,” he wrote.
Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister and Roman Catholic, told the newspaper The Australian that the cardinal had been a “saint for our times.”
George Pell was born in Ballarat, about 75 miles west of Melbourne, on June 8, 1941, to George Arthur and Margaret Lillian (Burke) Pell. His father, an Anglican of little religious conviction, was the manager of a gold mine and a former heavyweight boxing champion; his mother was a devout Catholic. He had a sister, Margaret, who died in 2021, and a brother, David, who survives him.
George Pell grew up attending Mass weekly and confession once a month. He was a keen athlete as a youth, signing a contract to become a professional player of Australian rules football for a team in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, although he ultimately declined to pursue it. In his final year at a Catholic secondary school, in 1959, he decided to become a priest.
“I feared and suspected and eventually became convinced that God wanted me to do his work, and I was never able to successfully escape that conviction,” he told an interviewer in 1997. “I still marvel that I made the leap of being interested in it and thinking about it to saying, ‘I’ll have a go.’ ”
In 1960, Pell began his studies to become a priest at the Australian seminary Corpus Christi College in Werribee, another suburb of Melbourne. He continued his education at the Pontifical Urban University in the Vatican and at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctor of philosophy degree in church history in 1971. He served as the chaplain to Catholic students at the elite British secondary school Eton College.
On his return to Australia in 1971, Pell began climbing the ranks of the church there, becoming archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and of Sydney in 2001. He was appointed a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
Pell was known in the church for his traditional views, which he said had made him unpopular with the public. Speaking to the BBC in 2020, he described his style as “rather direct.”
“The fact that I defend Christian teachings is irritating to a lot of people,” he said. “For my basic Christian positions I make no apology at all.”
Even as he faced his own accusations of sexual abuse, Pell did not dispute that the Catholic Church had been complicit in the sexual abuse of children. He deeply lamented their suffering, he said, but was “able to sleep quite well on most occasions.”