89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cardinal George Pell, whose sex abuse convictions were overturned, dies at 81

Cardinal George Pell, center, the most senior Catholic cleric to face sex charges, leaves court in Melbourne, Australia, May 2, 2018. Pell, who was the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sex abuse before his convictions were later overturned, died on Tuesday in Rome at age 81.
Asanka Brendon Ratnayake
/
AP
Cardinal George Pell, center, the most senior Catholic cleric to face sex charges, leaves court in Melbourne, Australia, May 2, 2018. Pell, who was the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sex abuse before his convictions were later overturned, died on Tuesday in Rome at age 81.

ROME — Cardinal George Pell, who was the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sex abuse and spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia only to have his convictions overturned, died Tuesday. He was 81.

Pell died after undergoing hip surgery at Rome's Salvator Mundi hospital, said a friend, Rev. Robert McCulloch, a Rome-base priest. He had been in Rome to attend the funeral last week of Pope Benedict XVI.

Pell, an Australian, was once the third-highest ranked Catholic in the Vatican after earlier serving as the Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney.

Pope Francis brought Pell to the Vatican in February 2014 to reform its finances as the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. But Pell returned to his native Australia in 2017 in an attempt to clear his name of child sex charges.

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.

Pell served 404 days in solitary confinement before the full-bench of the High Court unanimously overturned his convictions in 2020. But his career in the Vatican was effectively over.

During his time in prison, Pell kept a journal 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 insists he never committed.

Pell and his supporters believe 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.

Australian Cardinal George Pell stands next to the body of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lied out in state inside St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican on Jan. 3.
Gregorio Borgia / AP
/
AP
Australian Cardinal George Pell stands next to the body of late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lied out in state inside St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican on Jan. 3.

Even after he was acquitted, Pell's reputation remained tarnished by the scandal.

Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that he knew of clergy molesting children in the 1970s and did not take adequate action to address it.

Pell later said in a statement he was "surprised" by the commission's findings. "These views are not supported by evidence," Pell's statement said.

With his rather brusque, no-nonsense Australian sensibilities, Pell clashed frequently with the Vatican's Italian old guard during the three years he lived in Rome trying to get a handle on the Vatican's assets and spending. He was somewhat vindicated when Vatican prosecutors put 10 people, including his onetime nemesis, on trial in 2021 for a host of alleged financial crimes.

After Pell returned to Rome following his release from prison, 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 at his apartment in Rome. "And, you know, I think it's been sadly vindicated by revelations and developments."

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.

Pell 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.

He was archbishop of Melbourne then Sydney before he headed to the Vatican.

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 were critical of the system and of compensation payments.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press