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

Cardinal George Pell, a conservative theologian who served as Pope Francis The Vatican finance chief, who was acquitted after becoming the senior Catholic minister and convicted of sexually assaulting children, died in Rome on Tuesday. 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 after hip surgery. Cardinal Pell was in Rome last week to attend the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. to participate.

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

Even after his acquittal, the cardinal remained a polarizing figure in Australia and in the Church. For his critics, he was a symbol of the abuse crisis. To his followers, he was a scapegoat targeted by enemies of the Church.

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Cardinal Pell, who was also Archbishop of Sydney, created one of the world’s first compensation programs for victims of child sexual abuse. But critics say he presided over a culture of secrecy and used the program – which required victims to waive their right to civil action – to silence them.

An Australian high-level investigation known as a royal commissionbegan investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It found that the cardinal was aware that clergy molested children in the 1970s but did not take enough steps to address it.

The cardinal told the inquiry in 2016 that he didn’t know if the offenses of Gerald Ridsdale – a priest who moved from church to parish in the 1970s and 1980s and later on dozens of child sex abuse charges was convicted – were common knowledge.

“It’s a sad story and didn’t interest me very much,” Cardinal Pell said said the request. “The suffering was of course real and I deeply regret that, but I had no reason to worry about the extent of the evils Ridsdale had committed.”

Cardinal Pell gave testimony on the inquest via video link from Rome after his lawyers said he was too sick to travel to Australia. Pell suffered from high blood pressure, heart disease and cardiac dysfunction, and a doctor had concluded that a longer flight was dangerous to his health.

A staunch conservative on the Church’s moral teachings, the cardinal was an ally of Benedict and Francis as they led the Church. He was recruited to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2014 and tasked with reforming its finances. His career was effectively turned on its head when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against allegations of sexual assault.

In the trial, prosecutors relied on the testimony of a former choirboy, who was in his 30s at the time and had a young family. He reported the alleged abuses to police in 2015 after another ex-choirboy died of an accidental drug overdose. The other choirboy made no public allegations against Cardinal Pell. (A separate sexual abuse case was dropped by prosecutors after the trial began.)

Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name has not been released publicly, said he respects the decision to acquit and accepts the outcome. He said it highlights the difficulties in child sexual abuse cases in convincing a criminal court that the crime took place beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It’s 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 child sex offenses go unpunished.”

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