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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Angela Giuffrida in Rome

Pope Francis pays tribute to controversial cardinal George Pell

Pope Francis holds a private audience with Cardinal George Pell
Pope Francis holds a private audience with Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican in October 2020. Photograph: Vatican Media/Reuters

Pope Francis has praised George Pell for his “determination and wisdom”, in a statement dedicated to the controversial cardinal after his death at the age of 81.

Pell, who was Australia’s most senior Catholic and was found guilty and then acquitted of child sexual abuse, had undergone a hip operation in Rome and died after a cardiac arrest. Days earlier, he attended the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

In a statement addressed to Giovanni Battista Re, the dean of the college of cardinals, Francis expressed his condolences while remembering “a grateful soul” and “committed witness to the gospel and church”, who also laid the foundations for changes now under way at the holy see’s secretariat for the economy, which Pell led between 2014 and 2019 with “determination and wisdom”.

The pope said he was praying that “this faithful servant, who unwaveringly followed his Lord with perseverance even in the hour of trial, may be received into the joy of heaven and receive the reward of eternal peace”.

Francis praised Pell for his work as economy chief during an interview with the Italian TV channel Canale 5 in December. “I only gave the instructions,” the pontiff said. “But, thank God, organising [the reforms] is going well at the secretariat for the economy.

“Cardinal Pell saw this clearly. He is the one who started this. Then he had to stay for almost two years in Australia because of this slander they made against him – he was innocent, but they made him an ugly, poor fellow – and he walked away from this administration, but it was Pell who provided the blueprint for how things could go forward. He was a great man and we owe him many things.”

The holy see has not yet provided information on when Pell’s funeral will take place, but the Vatican spokesperson, Matteo Bruni, said “generally, these funerals are held in St Peter’s Basilica”.

Pell died at Salvator Mundi hospital in Rome after undergoing a long-planned hip operation. He had experienced heart problems and was fitted with a pacemaker in 2010.

Messages of condolence were sent from around the world. Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said: “For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today. This will come as a shock to many. This was a hip operation and the consequences of it, unfortunately, have been that Cardinal Pell has lost his life.”

The former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said: “Australia has lost a great son and the church has lost a great leader with the passing of George Pell.” He added that Pell “strikes me as a saint for our times”.

Pell was born in Ballarat in 1941 and was ordained in 1966. He became a bishop in 1987 and was made a cardinal in 2003, serving as archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Pell – a staunch conservative who opposed same-sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion and contraception – rose through the ranks of the Catholic church in Australia before being placed in charge of the Vatican’s finances in 2014, making him the most senior Australian Catholic in history.

In 2018, he was convicted of molesting two teenage choirboys in the sacristy while he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He always maintained his innocence and his convictions were quashed by the high court in 2020.

Vivian Waller, a lawyer for one of his accusers, said: “I will remember George Pell as the man who was at the helm of the church [in Australia] when the full horror of child sexual abuse came to the fore, but acted defensively to deny, diminish and protect the church’s reputation and assets.

“Survivors are hopeful that with his passing this might be a time of transformation in the church and, perhaps, some more compassionate responses might come forward.”

Benedict was also accused of failing to act against four priests accused of child sexual abuse during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising.

Pat Brown, a spokesperson for the Catholic Women’s Ordination, which released a strong statement on behalf of survivors of clerical abuse after Benedict’s death, said: “Here we have a double whammy. Pell was such a high-profile person, the fact that he has died will be another trigger for the survivors of abuse … They’ve just had it brought back to them again [due to Benedict’s death] and now this.”

Pell, who was a polarising figure in Australia over several decades, attracted criticism for suggesting abortion was a worse moral failing than Catholic clergy abusing children, describing contraception as a “heresy” and actively lobbying the Australian government against the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Pell returned to Rome in September 2020 after his acquittal.

Others have defended him, including the British commentator Lois McLatchie, who said: “I had the good fortune of meeting Cardinal Pell and hearing him speak last summer. Despite all he had been through – falsely accused and imprisoned – there didn’t seem to be a drop of bitterness. He made use of his time on Earth – whether in church or prison – to glorify God.”

Chad Pecknold, an associate professor at the Catholic University of America, said: “I am very sorry to hear of the sudden death of Cardinal Pell, who was so unjustly vilified in hatred of the faith, who suffered in union with Christ and who was also vindicated by a unanimous court – surely a martyr in the ancient sense, a witness.”

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