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

Cardinal George Pell in 2020. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
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Cardinal George Pell, a conservative theologian who served as the Vatican finance chief for Pope Francis and who was acquitted after becoming the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of sexually assaulting children, died Jan. 10 in Rome. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by Peter Comensoli, one of his successors as the archbishop of Melbourne, who said the cardinal died of complications from hip surgery. Cardinal Pell had been in Rome to attend Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s funeral.

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

The cardinal remained a polarizing figure in Australia and the church even after his acquittal. For his detractors, he was a symbol of the abuse crisis. To his supporters, he was a scapegoat who had been targeted by enemies of the church.

Cardinal Pell, who also served as archbishop of Sydney, set up one of the world’s first programs to compensate victims of child sexual abuse. But critics say he presided over a culture of secrecy, using the program — which required victims to waive their right to civil legal action — to silence them.

A top-level Australian inquiry, known as a Royal Commission, began investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It found that the cardinal was aware of clergy molesting children in the 1970s but didn’t take sufficient steps to address it.

The cardinal told the inquiry in 2016 that he did not know whether the offenses of Gerald Ridsdale — a priest who was moved from parish to parish by the church in the 1970s and 1980s and later convicted on dozens of charges of sexually abusing children — were common knowledge.

“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” Cardinal Pell told the inquiry. “The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated.”

Cardinal Pell gave evidence to the inquiry via video link from Rome after his lawyers said he was too unwell to travel to Australia. Cardinal Pell suffered from hypertension, heart disease and cardiac dysfunction, and a doctor had concluded that a prolonged flight was dangerous to his health.

George Pell was born in Ballarat, a gold-mining town in Australia’s Victoria state, on June 8, 1941. His father was a nonpracticing Anglican and heavyweight boxing champion. His mother was devoutly Catholic.

In his youth, he played Australian rules football, and his natural athleticism and towering frame — he was well over 6 feet tall — saw him sign a contract with a major club while still a teenager. He chose to pursue a clerical career instead and was ordained in 1966 at St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

He rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church, becoming the most powerful Australian in the clergy’s history and an ally of Benedict when he led the church, and later, Pope Francis. (Benedict made a rare visit to Australia in 2008.)

Cardinal Pell held hard-line views on contemporary social issues, including same-sex relations, abortion and the role of women in the clergy. He forged close ties with Australia’s conservative political establishment, including former prime minister Tony Abbott, a pious Catholic who visited him in prison.

In a 2001 radio interview, the cardinal suggested couples considering divorce should be offered financial incentives to stay together. In the same interview, he said there was “no possibility” the church would ever have women priests. He once described the sci-fi film “Avatar” (2009) — which at the time was the highest-grossing film in Australian history — as “old-fashioned pagan propaganda.”

In 2002, Cardinal Pell was criticized by victim support groups for his remark that “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.” He did not back away from the comment when questioned by the Sydney Morning Herald days later, although he claimed his original statement had been quoted out of context because it did not include his condemnation of sex abuse in the church.

In contrast with his staunchly conservative stance on the church’s moral teachings, the cardinal was a financial reformer who was recruited to the Vatican by Francis in 2014 and charged with overhauling its finances. That focus on transparency — honed during his early years in Australia — saw him lock horns with the church’s bureaucracy over his attempts to audit the Vatican’s assets and spending.

Although Cardinal Pell’s career was effectively derailed when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against allegations of sexual assault, one legacy of his time scrutinizing the books was a spiraling Vatican corruption investigation.

In a statement Wednesday, Abbott, the right-wing former prime minister, described Cardinal Pell’s incarceration as “a modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death.”

In the 2018 sexual assault trial, the prosecution relied on the evidence of a former choirboy who was then in his 30s and had a young family. He reported the alleged abuses to police in 2015, after another former choirboy died of a drug overdose. The other choirboy did not make public accusations against Cardinal Pell. (A separate case of sexual abuse was dropped by the prosecution after the trial began.)

Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name was not publicly disclosed, said he respected the decision to acquit and accepted the outcome. He said it highlighted the difficulties in child sexual abuse cases of satisfying a criminal court that the offense occurred beyond all reasonable doubt.

“It is a very high standard to meet — a heavy burden,” he said in a statement at the time. “But the price we pay for weighting the system in favor of the accused is that many sexual offenses against children go unpunished.”

Miles Pattenden, a historian with the Australian Catholic University, said the cardinal was a “deeply polarizing figure” and admired by a minority of Catholic Australians for his championing of traditional morality.

But many Australians saw him as “complicit in covering up the sexual abuse of children,” Pattenden said, and as a man who “stood behind some of the now-convicted abuser priests to a degree which was not sensible.”