Cardinal George Pell, a leading Roman Catholic conservative and former top Vatican official who was acquitted of sexual abuse allegations, has died in Rome at the age of 81.
Pell died in hospital Tuesday of complications from heart complications following hip surgery, Archbishop Peter Comensoli said.
Pell, an Australian and once the third-ranking Catholic at the Vatican, having previously served as Archbishop of Melbourne, returned to his native Australia in 2019 to clear his name over allegations of child sex abuse.
In a 2020 ruling, an Australian appeals court overturned a conviction that he had sexually assaulted two choirboys in the 1990s and allowed him to walk free after 13 months in prison.
Earlier, a Victoria State County Court jury found him guilty of molesting minors at St Patrick’s Cathedral shortly after he became Archbishop of Melbourne, sparking a global scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
Pell served as Vatican Secretary of Commerce from 2014 before taking a leave of absence in 2017 to return home and face indictment.
On the day of his acquittal in April 2020, Pope Francis held a morning mass for those suffering “unjust sentences” and compared it to the persecution of Jesus.
“Look, it was bad, it wasn’t a holiday, but I don’t want to exaggerate how difficult it was. But there were many dark moments,” Pell had said of his time in prison.
Even after his acquittal, the cardinal’s reputation remained tarnished by the child abuse scandals.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that he was aware of priests molesting children in the 1970s but failed to take appropriate action.
According to the 2017 report published in May 2020, “By 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only aware of the sexual abuse of children by clergy, but he had also considered measures to avoid situations that might provoke gossip about it.”
Pell later said in a statement he was “surprised” by the commission’s findings.
“These views are not supported by any evidence,” he added.
Pell returned to Rome after his acquittal in the two child molestation counts. However, his career at the Vatican was practically over.
However, the cardinal was a polarizing figure prior to the child abuse scandal.
During the two decades he dominated the Australian Catholic hierarchy, he was despised for his outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of women.
Born on June 8, 1941, Pell was the eldest of three children of a heavyweight boxer and host named George Pell. His mother, Margaret Lillian, came from an Irish Catholic family.
He grew up in the city of Ballarat in the Australian state of Victoria. A talented footballer, the cardinal was also offered a contract for Richmond but chose the seminary instead.