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

Cardinal George Pell, a conservative theologian who served as Pope Francis’ Vatican treasurer and was acquitted after becoming the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of sexually abusing a child, died in Rome on Tuesday. He is 81 years old.

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

Cardinal Pell has spent more than a year in solitary confinement in his native Australia after a jury found him guilty in 2018 of attacking two teenage choir boys at Melbourne Cathedral while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s. In 2020, the Supreme Court of Australia overturned his conviction.

Even after his acquittal, the cardinal remains a polarizing figure in Australia and the church. To his critics, he is a symbol of the crisis of abuse. To his supporters, he was a scapegoat for the church’s enemies.

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Cardinal Pell, who is also the Archbishop of Sydney, has set up the world’s first scheme to compensate victims of child sex abuse. But critics say he has presided over a culture of secrecy, using the program — which requires victims to waive their rights to civil suits — to silence them.

In 2013, a top Australian inquiry called the Royal Commission began looking into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions. The investigation found that the cardinal knew about child molestation by clergy in the 1970s but did not do enough to address it.

During the 2016 inquest, the cardinal said he did not know if Gerald Ridsdale’s crimes were genuine. common sense.

“It’s a sad story and I don’t have much interest in it,” Cardinal Pell said at the inquest. “Of course the pain is real and I deeply regret it, but I have no reason to think about the level of evil Ridsdale committed.”

Cardinal Pell testified by video link from Rome after his lawyer said he was too unwell to travel to Australia. Pell suffered from high blood pressure, heart disease and heart dysfunction, and doctors concluded that flying for a long time was harmful to his health.

George Pell was born on June 8, 1941 in the gold mining town of Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. His father was a lay Episcopalian and heavyweight boxing champion. His mother was a devout Catholic.

He played AFL in his youth, and his natural athleticism and size – he was over six feet tall – landed him a contract with a big club in his early teens. He chose a clerical career and was ordained a priest in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1966.

He quickly rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church to become the most powerful Australian in clergy history and was an ally when he led the church with Pope Benedict and later with Pope Francis. (Benedict made a rare visit to Australia in 2008.)

Cardinal Pell has taken a tough line on contemporary social issues, including same-sex relations, abortion and women’s roles in the clergy. He has developed close ties to Australia’s conservative political establishment, including former prime minister Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic who he visited in prison.

In a 2001 radio interview, Cardinal suggested that couples considering divorce should be given financial incentives to stay together. In the same interview, he said it was “impossible” for the church to have a female pastor. He once described Avatar, then the highest-grossing film in Australian history, as “old-fashioned pagan propaganda”.

In 2002, Cardinal Pell was criticized by victim advocacy groups for saying abortion was a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people. He did not shy away from the comment when questioned by the Sydney Morning Herald a few days later, although he claimed his original statement had been taken out of context because it did not include his condemnation of sexual abuse in the church.

In contrast to his staunchly conservative stance on the church’s moral teachings, the cardinal is a financial reformer who was recruited to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2014 to overhaul its finances. A focus on transparency – honed early in Australia – has put him at odds with the church’s bureaucracy as he attempts to audit the Vatican’s assets and spending.

Although Cardinal Pell’s career actually One legacy of his time reviewing the books, derailed when he returned to Australia to defend himself from sexual assault allegations in 2017, is a spiraling Vatican corruption investigation.

In a statement on Wednesday, right-wing former prime minister Tony Abbott described Cardinal Pell’s imprisonment as “a modern form of crucifixion; a living dead, at least in reputation.”

inside Sexual Assault in 2018 At trial, the prosecution relied on evidence from a former choir boy, then in his 30s with a young family. He reported the alleged abuse to police in 2015 after another former choir boy died of a drug overdose. Another choir boy has not publicly accused Cardinal Pell. (After the trial began, the prosecution dropped another sexual abuse case.)

Cardinal Pell, whose accuser has not been named publicly, said he respected the acquittal and accepted the outcome. He said it highlighted the difficulty in child sex abuse cases of convincing a criminal court that the offense occurred beyond a reasonable doubt.

“That’s a very high bar — a heavy burden,” he said in a statement at the time. “But the price we pay for system weighting in favor of defendants is that many sex crimes against children go unpunished.”

Miles Pattenden, a historian at the Australian Catholic University, said the cardinal was a “deeply polarizing figure” and was popular with a minority of Catholic Australians for his upholding of traditional morals. admiration.

But many Australians see him as “complicit in the cover-up of sexual abuse of children”, Pattenden said, and as someone who “supports some priests who are now convicted of abusing, to the extent that it would be unwise”.

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