Cardinal George Pell, Australia's top Catholic prelate whose role as Vatican finance secretary ended amid sexual abuse allegations, died Tuesday. He was 81, and the cause of death was fatal heart complications following hip surgery, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said. Pell was in Rome to attend the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Pell is the highest-ranking Catholic official to have been convicted of sexual abuse, but his 2018 conviction was unanimously overturned by the High Court of Australia after Pell had spent 404 days in solitary confinement in an Australian prison. A jury had convicted him of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s. He maintained his innocence.
Pell told reporters in Rome before returning to Australia to face trial in 2017 that he was the victim of "relentless character assassination," adding, "The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me." He also said he was "surprised" that Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found in its comprehensive report that he knew about clergy molesting children in the 1970s and did not adequately respond. "These views are not supported by evidence," Pell said.
Pell was known for his conservative theological views and rose quickly in the church, being named archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and then archbishop of Sydney in 2001. Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2003, and Pope Francis called him to Rome in 2014 to fix the Vatican's notoriously opaque finances as head of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. The position made Pell the Vatican's No. 3 official, and he had some success reforming the Holy See's finances and making them more transparent, until he returned to Australia to face trial in 2017.
"It was Pell who laid out how we could go forward" on Vatican finances, Pope Francis said in December. "He's a great man and we owe him so much."
In Australia, the reaction to Pell's death was muted and mixed. He will be laid to rest in a mass at the Vatican and buried in Australia.