Pope Francis yesterday praised the late Australian cardinal George Pell for persevering in trying times – a reference to when he spent more than a year in prison accused of child sexual abuse, before he was fully acquitted.
Francis, in an Italian-language message sent to the dean of the College of Cardinals, also thanked Mr Pell for laying the groundwork for Vatican financial reform with “determination and wisdom”.
Cardinal Pell died on Tuesday night in Rome of cardiac arrest while in a hospital for hip replacement surgery. He was 81 and had always maintained his innocence.
In his message to the dean, Francis said he was saddened by the news of Cardinal Pell’s sudden death and was grateful for his “coherent and committed” dedication.
Mr Pell’s body will most likely lie in state in a side chapel in St Peter’s Basilica, ahead of requiem mass there tomorrow.
SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse, called on the Vatican to show “restraint” in funeral arrangements – “unless the hierarchy wants to deepen already deep wounds.”
A Catholic Church spokesperson in Australia said Cardinal Pell will be buried in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, where he was an archbishop.
An Australian appeals court ruling in 2020 quashed convictions that Mr Pell sexually assaulted two choirboys in the 1990s. It allowed Cardinal Pell to walk free after 13 months in prison, ending the case of the most senior figure accused in the global scandal of historical sex abuse by clerics.
“Look, it was bad, it wasn’t like a holiday – but I don’t want to exaggerate how difficult it was. But there were many dark moments,” said Mr Pell in 2020. He later wrote a thee-volume prison journal.
He said the lowest point in his prison ordeal was when his first appeal was rejected in August 2019. “I was down. I was very disappointed. I came to be very cross,” he said. “But I said my prayers and got on with things.”
Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, was called by Pope Francis in 2014 to serve as Vatican economy minister – a post he held until taking a leave of absence in 2017 to return to Australia to face the charges.
At the Vatican, he encountered much resistance from the Italian “old guard” to reforms he wanted to enact. Last July, Pope Francis praised Cardinal Pell as “the genius” who insisted on an overarching method to control money flows and combat corruption.
Even before the sexual assault accusations, Cardinal Pell was a polarising figure who dominated the Australian hierarchy, revered by conservative Catholics for his opposition to same-sex marriage and women’s ordination.
He had lived in Rome since his acquittal and had several meetings with Pope Francis, often attending the pontiff’s masses. Francis praised him publicly after his return.
After his return to Rome, Cardinal Pell became a familiar face in the Vatican area, even though he was retired. His home became a focal point for conservatives preparing their platform for the eventual election of Francis’ successor.