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

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

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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 sex abuse, died on Tuesday in Rome. 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 following 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 teenagers in a Melbourne cathedral while he was the city’s archbishop in the 1990s. His conviction was overturned by an Australian high court in 2020.

The cardinal remains a polarizing figure in Australia and the church even after his acquittal. For his opponents, he was a symbol of the violence crisis. To his supporters, he was a scapegoat who was targeted by the church’s enemies.

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Cardinal Pell, who also served as the Archbishop of Sydney, established 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 Commissionlaunched an investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It found the cardinal knew of abuse of children by clergy in the 1970s but did not take sufficient steps to address it with this.

The cardinal told the inquiry in 2016 that he did not know whether the crimes 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 sexual abuse of children were common culture.

“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” Cardinal Pell told the inquiry. “The suffering was real, of course, and I am very sorry for it, but I had no reason to call attention to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had done.”

Cardinal Pell gave evidence to the inquiry via video link from Rome after his lawyers told him he was too unwell to travel to Australia. Pell suffers from hypertension, heart disease and cardiac dysfunction, and a doctor has concluded that the long-haul flight is dangerous to his health.

A staunch conservative of the church’s moral teachings, 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 charged with reforming its finances. His career effectively took off when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against sexual assault allegations.

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

Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name was not made public, said he respected the acquittal and accepted the outcome. He said this highlighted the difficulty in child sexual abuse cases of convincing a criminal court that the offense was committed beyond reasonable doubt.

“This is 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 sex crimes against children go unpunished.”

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