George Pell: Controversial Australian Cardinal dies at 81

The former financial adviser to Pope Francis spent 404 days in solitary confinement until child abuse charges were overturned

Cardinal George Pell, pictured in November 2021, died in Rome. EPA
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Australian Cardinal George Pell, whose conviction on child abuse charges was overturned, has died at the age of 81.

Pell, a former financial adviser to Pope Francis, spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia until the convictions were unanimously overturned.

He died on Tuesday in Rome after heart complications that followed hip surgery, according to Archbishop Peter Comensoli, Pell’s successor as Archbishop of Melbourne.

The father of a former altar boy will press ahead with legal action against Pell's estate over the alleged sexual abuse of his son, his lawyers said on Wednesday.

Pell had been in Rome to attend the funeral last week of Pope Benedict XVI.

“This news comes as a great shock to all of us,” Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher said on Facebook.

“Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Pell, for comfort and consolation for his family and for all of those who loved him and are grieving him at this time.”

'A difficult day'

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said plans were under way to hold a service at the Vatican and to bring Pell’s body back to Australia.

“For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today,” he said.

Pell was archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, becoming the third-highest ranked official in the Vatican after Pope Francis chose him in 2014 to reform the Vatican’s finances.

He spent three years as prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, where he tried to impose international budgeting, accounting and transparency standards.

But Pell returned to Australia in 2017 in an attempt to clear his name of child sex charges dating from his time as archbishop.

Australian Cardinal George Pell prays near the body of the late Pope Benedict XVI in the Saint Peter Basilica in Vatican City on January 3. EPA

A Victoria state County Court jury initially convicted him of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the latest 1990s shortly after he became archbishop. Pell served 404 days in solitary confinement before the full-bench of the High Court unanimously overturned his convictions in 2020.

During his time in prison, Pell kept a diary 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.

Pell and his supporters said he was a scapegoat for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s response to clerical sexual abuse.

“Looking back, I was probably excessively optimistic that I’d get bail,” Pell said in a 2021 interview at his home in Rome.

On Wednesday, Shine Lawyers said they would continue to pursue the claim against any estate left by the cardinal, who died Tuesday in Rome.

The former altar boy died in 2014, and his father — who has not been identified — filed the claim against Pell and the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 2021.

"A civil trial would have provided the opportunity to cross-examine Pell and truly test his defence against these allegations," Shine Lawyers, representing the father, said hours after the powerful Church figure's death.

"There is a great deal of evidence for this claim to rely on, and the court will be asked in due course to make its ruling on that evidence."

The father is accusing the Church of mistreating his son. The case was made public in July last year and widely reported in the Australian media.

Updated: January 11, 2023, 7:46 AM