Cardinal George Pell, a former senior Catholic Church official who was accused of sexual violence in Australia and then cleared, died Tuesday in Rome at the age of 81.
Coming from a modest background in the Australian state of Victoria, George Pell rose through the ranks to become grand treasurer of the Vatican.
But his meteoric rise was marred by criminal convictions – later overturned – for sexually assaulting two Australian altar boys in the 1990s when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
His supporters on Wednesday praised this modern-day “saint”, but for victims of sexual violence in the Church, his death brought back painful memories.
“It is with great sadness that I can confirm that His Eminence, Cardinal George Pell, died in Rome” on Tuesday, Australian Archbishop Anthony Fisher said in a statement sent to AFP.
In a telegram of condolences on Wednesday, Pope Francis expressed his “sadness” and saluted a “faithful servant who, without wavering, followed his lord with perseverance even in the trial”.
For former Australian Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the cardinal’s name has been tainted by a “monstrous allegation”. His incarceration “was a modern form of crucifixion,” he said Wednesday. “He seems to me to be a saint for our time.”
But Donald McLeish, of the SNAP association for the defense of victims of religious pedophile criminals, believes that the cardinal embodied the negligence of the Church towards the victims of sexual violence.
“His name is known to all survivors around the world,” he told AFP. “Not just for his inaction, but for the coldness he showed towards victims and survivors.”
According to the official Vatican News website, George Pell “died of complications following hip surgery” he underwent in a hospital in Rome.
His body will be transported to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, the Australian Church said.
– One year in prison –
Australian lawyers confirmed on Wednesday that they would pursue the civil action in which Pell is a co-defendant.
The case was sparked in 2021 by the father of a deceased former altar boy who claimed he was sexually assaulted by George Pell.
“The complaint will continue against the Church and all that Pell left behind,” Shine Lawyers said in a statement.
Prior to his imprisonment in Australia, Bishop Pell was considered Pope Francis’ right-hand man and the third most powerful figure in the Church.
In 2014, Bishop Pell was tasked with rooting out corruption from the Church as the Vatican’s Secretary of Economics.
He voluntarily returned to Australia in 2017 to face sex abuse charges, which he strenuously denied until his death.
In 2019, he was sentenced to six years in prison for the sexual assault in the 1990s of two altar boys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
Confirmed on appeal, his conviction was then overturned by the Australian High Court, and the prelate was released after 12 months of imprisonment.
He returned five months later to Rome, where he was received by Pope Francis. He then claimed that the judgment had made it possible to repair “a serious injustice”.
Although he was cleared by the courts, a separate investigation pointed to his disregard for claims of sexual abuse during his rise in the Australian Catholic Church.
“In 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only aware of the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, but he also considered measures to avoid situations that could provoke discussions on this subject,” concluded a royal commission. in 2020.