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

Cardinal George Pell, a conservative theologian who served as the Vatican’s finance chief for Pope Francis and who was acquitted after becoming the highest ranking Catholic cleric to be convicted of child molestation, died Tuesday in Rome. He was 81 years old.

His death was confirmed by Peter Comensoli, one of his successors as Archbishop of Melbourne, who said the cardinal died of heart complications after undergoing hip surgery. Cardinal Pell was in Rome to attend the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI last week.

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 choirboy teenagers at a Melbourne cathedral when he was archbishop of the city in the 1990s. His conviction was overturned by an Australian high court in 2020.

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

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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 give up their right to civil legal action – to silence them.

A high-profile Australian inquiry, known as the Royal Commission, began investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It revealed the Cardinal was aware that the clergy had molested children in the 1970s, but did not take enough action to address it.

The cardinal told the inquest in 2016 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 of Dozens of child sex abuse charges – were common knowledge.

“It’s a sad story and I wasn’t very interested in it,” Cardinal Pell told the inquest. “The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret it, but I had no reason to think about the extent of the harm Ridsdale had perpetrated.”

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

A staunch preserver of the moral teachings of the Church, the Cardinal was an ally of Benedict and Francis when 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 upside down when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against sexual assault allegations.

During the trial, the prosecution relied on the testimony of a former altar boy, who was then in his thirties and had a young family. He reported the alleged abuse to police in 2015, after another former altar boy died of an accidental drug overdose. The other altar boy did not make public accusations against Cardinal Pell. (A separate sexual abuse case was dropped by the prosecution after the trial began.)

Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name has not been made public, said he respects the acquittal ruling and accepts the outcome. He said it highlighted the difficulties in child sexual abuse cases in convincing a criminal court that the offense had occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.

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

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