Cardinal George Pell, an Australian cleric and adviser to Pope Francis who became the most senior Roman Catholic prelate sent to prison for child sexual abuse, before later being acquitted of all charges, died on Tuesday in Rome. He was 81.
The cause of death was complications from hip replacement surgery, according to Peter Comensoli, the archbishop of Melbourne, who confirmed the death in a post on Twitter. Cardinal Pell had gone to Rome to attend the funeral last week of Pope Benedict XVI.
For decades, Cardinal Pell was 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, strongly opposing abortion while defending the church against accusations of child abuse as the archbishop of the Melbourne diocese and then the Sydney diocese.
For many Australian Catholics, Cardinal Pell’s personal journey, from his origins in the tiny town of Ballarat to his stratospheric rise through the ranks of the Vatican, had at one time been personally inspirational, said the journalist Lucie Morris-Marr, the author of “Fallen: The Inside Story of the Secret Trial and Conviction of Cardinal George Pell.”
“He was really seen as a success story, a superstar, in effect,” Ms. 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, Cardinal Pell was the church’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 Cardinal Pell at the airport when he arrived from Rome.
In December 2018, he was convicted by an Australian jury of five counts of child sexual abuse of two choir boys that were said to have occurred in 1996, during his time in Melbourne. Less than two years later, in April 2020, Australia’s highest court overturned the conviction, saying that there was “a significant possibility” that he was not guilty.
Throughout the proceedings, Cardinal Pell maintained his innocence. At a news conference in Rome in 2017, he said he had been a victim of “relentless character assassination.” He said, “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
At the time of his death, Cardinal Pell faced a civil suit by the father of a now-deceased choir boy who alleged that the cleric had 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 a period of decades found that Cardinal Pell had been aware of the sexual abuse of children by other Roman Catholic priests as early as 1974, but failed to take action.
At the Vatican, Cardinal 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 — Cardinal 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, it was an alternative resolution process for survivors. Cardinal 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, or $35,000, and usually forced victims to keep their traumas confidential.
Cardinal Pell brought a similar approach to Sydney, where he served as archbishop from 2001 to 2014.
The response to Cardinal Pell’s 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, Archbishop Comensoli of Melbourne expressed “great sadness” at Cardinal 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 longtime Catholic, told The Australian newspaper that the cardinal had been a “saint for our times.”
George Pell was born in Ballarat, Australia, on June 8, 1941, to George Arthur and Margaret Lillian Pell, née Burke. His father, an Anglican of little religious conviction, was the manager of a gold mine and a 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.
Cardinal Pell grew up attending Mass weekly, and confession once a month. He was a keen sportsman as a child, and signed a contract to become a professional player of Australian rules football for the team of Richmond, which he did not ultimately take up. 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, Cardinal Pell began his studies as a priest at the Australian seminary Corpus Christi College in Werribee, a suburb of Melbourne, before continuing 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 and served as the chaplain to Catholic students at the elite British secondary school Eton College.
On his return to Australia in 1971, Cardinal Pell rose through the ranks of the church there. In 2003, he was appointed a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Pell was known within the church for his traditional views, which he claimed had made him unpopular among 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, Cardinal 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.”