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ABC News
ABC News
Europe correspondent Isabella Higgins in Rome

Cardinal George Pell's final days spent writing furiously about the Catholic Church's 'toxic nightmare'

Cardinal George Pell had told friends of his desire to spend his final years in Australia, but in the end, he would spend some of his last days furiously working on a fierce criticism of the Vatican.

Only after his death have his recent critical writings of the church and its leader been revealed, including claims he anonymously published scathing pieces under a pseudonym.

"The most recent articles that have come out that have been critical, quite critical of the Francis papacy," Elise Anne Allen, from the Catholic news site the Crux, told the ABC.

"One thing Pope Francis appreciated about him at the beginning, was that Pell was so honest, frank and up-front.

"I think that was maybe less appreciated as time went on."

Pell returned to the city-state in 2020 after he was released from a Victorian prison upon Australia's High Court quashing his conviction of historical child sexual abuse.

But when he arrived back after almost three years away, he no longer held the illustrious position that saw him in charge of the Holy See's finances.

Not long after his return he also turned 80, and lost the right to be a cardinal elector or vote in a future conclave.

"He was worried about the direction the church was going in under Pope Francis," Ms Allen said.

"He disagreed with many of the decisions [Pope Francis] was making and the processes he was unleashing in the Catholic Church."

The day following Pell's death, conservative publication The Spectator published an article penned by the cardinal mere days prior titled The Catholic Church must free itself from this 'toxic nightmare'.

A fiery criticism

The article critiqued a recent document by the Synod of Bishops – an advisory body to the Pope – and by extension the direction of the church under Pope Francis.

The document, Pell argued, makes a mistake of inviting a "radically inclusive" approach to expanding Catholicism.

The cardinal complained of a "deepening confusion, the attack on traditional morals," the adoption of "neo-Marxist jargon about exclusion, alienation, identity, marginalisation, the voiceless, LGBTQ" and an ignorance of "Christian notions of forgiveness, sin, sacrifice, healing, redemption."

A foreword by associate editor Damian Thompson justifying the publication of the piece said the cardinal "was prepared to face the fury of Pope Francis and the organisers when [the article] was published".

"As it is, his sudden death may add extra force to his words."

Separately, an Italian journalist claims a memorandum posted to a Vatican blog months ago was authored by Pell under a pseudonym.

The piece is a scathing assessment of Pope Francis's leadership, beginning with the indictment "this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe."

It goes on to list a series of points covering everything from Pope Francis's "weakened" preaching of the Gospel to the precariousness of the Holy See's finances and the "lack of respect for the law" in the city-state, including in the current financial corruption trial underway that the cardinal himself had championed.

"He had said much of this before but perhaps increasingly in retirement … so I don't think it would've come as a surprise to Pope Francis," Ms Allen said.

"He was a conservative Catholic that was well known … but there have been conservative and liberals in the church for as long as time."

Pell 'kept a full social calendar' in final days

Australia's most senior Catholic spent much of his final months in a modest apartment just beyond the Vatican City limits, shared with other senior cardinals.

Those who frequently visited him say he had an expansive library in his apartment filled with books of all subjects, with a particular interest in ancient Rome.

"I would consider him a friend," Joey Meugniot, an American consultant living in Rome, told the ABC.

"I would consider him a mentor and a figure that I wish I had the opportunity to learn more from him.

"I will remember talks about American politics, about ancient Rome, about current events in the Pacific."

Just days before he went to hospital for minor hip surgery, Pell had been involved with some of the preparations for former pope Benedict's XVI's funeral.

"He was writing constantly, he was constantly active, he didn't miss a step," Mr Meugniot said.

"Intellectually he was just as fierce as he's always been from the moment, I met him."

Mr Meugniot said his final meeting with him was right before Christmas when Pell appeared in good health, despite some mobility issues with his hip.

"He just always had this full social calendar … normal things like dinner, lunch, parties," he said

"He really seemed to be very busy right until the end."

The cardinal's legacy in the Vatican

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller told the ABC they had dinner just days before Pell was admitted to hospital.

Cardinal Muller was a fierce defender of the Australian Catholic, protesting his innocence and "unfair prosecution."

But for others who spent time with him socially, they recognise his large and controversial legacy made many uneasy.

The Australian cleric was divisive but authentically himself to the very end, said Ms Allen, who had privately met with the cardinal many times.

"As many people have been saying over the last few days, he was a very polemic person, he could be very divisive, he was bold, he was outspoken, he was fierce at times.

"But a lot of people have said that there was another side to the man, too, that wasn't quite as known, that he could be a kindhearted father."

He spoke of his time in prison in Australia at times, but often when trying to offer guidance or a lesson to others, Mr Meugniot said.

"People that would come up and say hello, you got a sense of how big his presence was around here.

"He's a physically imposing figure, you could tell that he still commanded a lot of people's respect.

"But he was a defender of the faith, that is what many will remember."

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