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ABC News
ABC News
Europe correspondent Isabella Higgins in Rome

Cardinal George Pell remembered as a powerful man with influence inside the Vatican

Within the walls of the Vatican, the shock death of Australian Cardinal George Pell has sent shock waves, as many remember a man with a large but controversial legacy in the city state.

"He was the kind of cardinal who felt himself to be a prince, cardinals are sometimes called the prince of the church," Nina Fabrizio, a Vatican journalist and author told the ABC.

"He expressed a part of the church that felt they are on another level, they believe they don't have to face the judgement of the man, they only have to face the judgement of God.

"That's the kind of mentality that is in the church [and has been] for many years, but with Pope Francis it's started changing now, but is still there."

Many inside the city found the 81-year-old's death unexpected and can recount stories of seeing him around the Vatican in recent days.

"I was very surprised when I heard he had died in the night because we had been together at dinner just a few evenings before," German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller told the ABC.

He had been living with the Australian in recent weeks in an apartment just outside the Vatican City gates, showing the ABC messages the pair had exchanged in recent times.

"I saw him just days ago and he wanted to discuss Pope Francis' recent homily … he was always an enigmatic presence here, always happy to talk," Ms Fabrizio said.

Pell wanted 'protection' from Pope during trial

At the time George Pell was charged by Victorian authorities for historical sexual abuse against two minors in 1990's, he was the third-most-senior-figure within the Vatican.

The criminal trial against George Pell left the church bruised and in a very vulnerable and difficult position with the public, Ms Fabrizio said.

"[Pope Francis] didn't give the protection to Cardinal Pell that maybe that was cardinal was expecting," she said.

"There was a precedent that the Vatican protects people from prison or poor treatment … but Pope Francis said, 'I trust you, I trust your innocence, but you have to demonstrate it to the court'".

Pell took a leave of absence in 2017 to defend himself in Australia.

The first trial of the Australian cardinal ended with a hung jury, before a second found him guilty and he was sentenced to six years in prison.

Just over a year later, the decision was quashed by Australia's High Court, and not long after the cleric returned to the Vatican.

"The public would like more openness on these abuse issues, more collaboration with the police, with the civil authorities," said Ms Fabrizio.

"There are some priests who still think that if something happens in a church, in a parish, it must be resolved inside the parish, they don't understand that it's a crime."

Cardinal Muller is a fierce defender of Pell, and shares many of his conservative viewpoints.

"I think generally all has been done that's possible for the victim and against those who are guilty, Cardinal Muller said.

"So we must turn to prevention, for the future to learn from the mistakes."

Meanwhile, Pope Francis praised Pell for persevering in trying times in his written remembrance note to fellow clergy.

Many assume it is a reference to the time spent in prison and on trial before he was fully acquitted.

The pontiff also thanked Pell, who served as the Holy See's economy minister, for laying the groundwork for financial reform in the Vatican with "determination and wisdom."

'A saint' to clergy offering an orthodox vision

Cardinal Pell was an alternative leadership figure to those in the Vatican dissatisfied with Pope Francis leadership — especially those who craved a more orthodox approach, Christopher Lamb from Catholic publication the Tablet told the ABC.

"To his supporters, he's almost already a saint," he said.

"He was a figure who those who are not so sympathetic to Pope Francis were coalescing around him."

Vatican-watchers said the church lost two strong conservative figures in recent weeks with the death Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and now Cardinal Pell.

Some believe it could open the door for a change of direction in church leadership.

Cardinal Pell was in charge of Vatican finances between 2014 and 2019 and was best known for his work reforming the Vatican's bookkeeping.

"He began the great reform of the finances of the Vatican … he was a brilliant administrator," said Cardinal Muller.

"He did face quite a lot of resistance inside the Vatican to his attempts to reform the way that the Vatican handled money," Mr Lamb said.

"But as we know about George Pell, he wasn't afraid to go into battle to try and get what he thought needed to happen, happen," he said.

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