Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most powerful Catholic, who was dogged by scandal – obituary

Cardinal was acquitted on appeal of child sexual abuse charges but remained tarnished by his response to paedophile priests over decades

The Australian cardinal George Pell rose from modest beginnings to become one of the world’s most powerful Catholics but his reputation was fatally damaged by association with the church’s child sexual abuse scandals in his home country. Pell himself became the highest-ranking Catholic to be convicted of such offences, and he spent more than a year in jail before his convictions were overturned by Australia’s high court in 2020.

In his role as cardinal and inaugural treasurer of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy, Pell had the ear of Pope Francis, but his influence had already begun to wane by the time he was charged with child sexual abuse offences in Australia in 2017. Pell was acquitted on appeal after his conviction in 2018, having spent 405 days in jail.

Pell, who has died in Rome aged 81, spent years crafting and defending the church’s responses to allegations of child sexual abuse as he rose to increasingly powerful positions, first in Australia, then in the Vatican.

In 1996, while archbishop of Melbourne, he established the Melbourne Response to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within the archdiocese going back decades and offer counselling to victims. The response was hailed by supporters as evidence of Pell’s willingness to tackle the stain on the church’s reputation but also criticised for capping compensation payouts and generally lacking compassion for survivors.

In 2002, when archbishop of Sydney, Pell briefly stepped down while facing allegations that he had sexually abused a 12-year-old boy 40 years previously. A church investigation found insufficient evidence to corroborate the accusation.

George Pell dressed in with hands raised
George Pell, as archbishop of Sydney, conducts a mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in mourning for the victims of the Bali bombings on 14 October 2002. Photograph: Mark Baker/Reuters

Later he was accused of failing to act against paedophile priests in Victoria in the 1970s and 80s and gave evidence three times before Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse between 2014 and 2016. In its final report, the commission stated that “by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it”.

Variously described by men who knew him at school as a popular and shrewd leader, Pell was labelled a bully by others. Supporters such as the former vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven, wrote character references for his trial arguing that his public persona, in which he could “appear gruff”, was at odds with a private “deeply sensitive” character.

Throughout his career Pell maintained hardline views on same-sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, the climate crisis and women in the clergy, and saw no reason to apologise for them.

(January 11, 1941) Born in Ballarat, Victoria.

(January 11, 1960) Begins studying for the priesthood at Corpus Christi Colleage in Werribee.

(January 11, 1963) Continues studies at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.

(January 11, 1966) Ordained a Catholic priest in the Vatican.

(January 11, 1972) Returns to Ballarat as an assistant parish priest.

(January 11, 1996) Appointed archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II.

(January 11, 2001) Appointed archbishop of Sydney by Pope John Paul II.

(January 11, 2003) Pope John Paul II makes Pell one of 31 new cardinals.

(January 11, 2005) Takes part in papal conclave that selects Pope Benedict XVI. Pell is also appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia.

(January 11, 2012)  The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, announces the royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse.

(January 11, 2013) Pell takes part in the papal conclave that elects Pope Francis.

(January 11, 2013) Gives evidence to Victorian parliamentary inquiry into handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations in Melbourne.

(January 11, 2014) Pell is appointed the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, making him effectively the Vatican’s treasurer and widely reported to be the third most senior figure in the church hierarchy. He is said to be a possible future pope.

(March 1, 2014) Gives evidence to royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in Sydney.

(August 10, 2014) Second royal commission appearance via videolink from the Vatican, to Melbourne hearing on the Melbourne Response.

(February 10, 2016) Third royal commission appearance, via videolink from Rome hotel conference room to Sydney; hearing on church’s handling of child abuse allegations in Ballarat diocese and Melbourne archdiocese.

(June 29, 2017) Charged with multiple, historical child sex offences. Pell strongly denies the allegations.

(January 11, 2018) One of the key complainants against Pell dies.

(August 15, 2018) The first of two trials into the allegations begins. It cannot be reported owing to a suppression order.

(September 20, 2018) Jury unable to reach either a unanimous or majority verdict. A mistrial is declared.

(December 11, 2018) The jury at retrial returns a unanimous verdict of guilty on all five charges after less than four days of deliberation. The suppression order means this can not be reported until the second trial is complete.

(December 13, 2018)  Pope Francis removes Pell from his inner circle in a restructure of his Council of Cardinals. Pell still holds his treasury position, from which he stood aside to stand trial.

(February 26, 2019) Prosecutors announce they have dropped the second trial owing to a lack of evidence, and because one of Pell’s key accusers died in January 2018. The judge lifts the suppression order on the first trial.

(March 13, 2019)  Pell is sentenced to six years prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.

(June 5, 2019)  Pell’s appeal is heard by the appellate division of the supreme court of Victoria.

(August 21, 2019)  Pell’s appeal is dismissed by a majority of two to one.

(September 17, 2019)  Lawyers for Pell lodge a special leave application with the high court.

(April 7, 2020)  The high court quashes Cardinal George Pell’s convictions, unanimously allowing his appeal. This is the conclusion of the legal process in Australia. There will be no further trials. Pell walks free after more than 400 days in prison.

(January 10, 2023)  Cardinal George Pell dies aged 81.

Preordained for power

George Pell was born in Ballarat, Victoria, on 8 June 1941, the third of five children of George Arthur Pell and Margaret Lillian (née Burke). He had a younger sister, Margaret, and a brother, David, and twin older siblings who died as infants. Pell’s father, a non-practising Anglican, was a larger-than-life character who had been a publican, goldmine manager, champion boxer, lifesaver and clearance diver. His mother, by contrast, was a pious Catholic.

Pell attended St Patrick’s College in Ballarat where his commanding height, cool demeanour and athleticism preordained him for the rowing, athletics and Australian rules football teams, with whom he won trophy after trophy. So accomplished was he that he signed a contract with the VFL club Richmond while still at school. Asked by Sky News in 2016 if he was not “a bit of a thug” on the field, Pell said: “Well, I was very fiery. I’ve got a formidable temper which I almost never show.”

He said the discipline he imposed on himself “not to lapse in that way” helped to explain his often wooden responses under questioning at the royal commission much later in life.

Despite having multiple surgeries in childhood to remove a growth in his throat, Pell also starred for the debating team and in at least two school productions, including as Pooh-Bah in The Mikado in 1958.

Pope Francis and George Pell standing next to each other in their religious robes
Pope Francis and Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican in October 2020. Photograph: Vatican Media/AFP/Getty Images

He set his sights high early in his clerical career, according to former fellow seminarians at Corpus Christi College in Werribee, Victoria. His classmates described him as “thriving” in the seminary’s exacting, austere environment, where becoming head prefect marked the first step in his ascent.

Dr Michael Leahy, a Corpus Christi alumnus, told the author Louise Milligan he remembered Pell as “up for any sort of challenge”, calling him “unstoppable” and “utterly ruthless” when pursuing an objective.

Ordained at St Peter’s Basilica in 1966, Pell completed his theological education – in Latin – at Rome’s Pontificia Università Urbaniana and then studied at Oxford, where he completed a PhD in church history. He also received a master’s in education from Monash University and was involved in establishing the Australian Catholic University.

While working in the Ballarat diocese early in his career, Pell was on the committee deciding parish transfers, including those of the priest Gerald Ridsdale, who was subsequently convicted of child sexual abuse, although Pell always claimed ignorance of any wrongdoing.

He became known for his formidable skills as an energetic administrator and doctrinal conservative, drawing the attention of the authorities in Rome, who appointed him auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987, then archbishop in 1996. He stood out as much for his canny manoeuvring as for his rigorous defence of traditional church teachings.

Father Eric Hodgens, Pell’s schoolfriend and fellow priest, described Pell as “a political animal”.

“His claim to fame has been his ability to be street-smart,” he told Milligan. “He sniffs the wind and he knows which way to go. He’s a loyalist to the institution – you just keep the rules and you don’t ask why, you just keep them.”

‘Be not afraid’

In 1990, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pell joined the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the first Australian to do so. During his decade as a member, David Marr wrote, books were banned and Marxists, theologians and homosexuals were excommunicated or silenced.

By 2003 Pell had been elevated to cardinal and took part in conclaves that elected Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013. Pell was selected by Pope Francis as a member of the elite Council of Cardinals, and in 2014 was appointed the inaugural head of the Vatican’s newly established Secretariat for the Economy. But his plans to overhaul the troubled financial activities of the Holy See and Vatican City bank came up against determined resistance.

“I underestimated the ingenuity and resilience of the opponents of reform,” Pell told Crux in 2021. “They didn’t like change; they didn’t understand what was being proposed.”

George Pell surrounded by police and reporters
Pell arrives at Melbourne county court on 27 February 2019. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

In 2018 Pell’s ecclesiastical career effectively ended when he faced trial over two separate sets of child sexual abuse charges. In the first, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Pell was retried and convicted on 11 December, but the verdict could not be made public until the second case had been completed. But in February 2019 prosecutors dropped the charges in that case due to lack of evidence and because one of the complainants had died. As a result, the guilty verdict in the first case was revealed and Pell was sentenced to six years in jail, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.

He spent 13 months in jail – including five months in solitary confinement to protect him from other inmates – before the high court overturned his conviction in April 2020. He was sustained, he said, by his faith and his personal motto, nolite timere (be not afraid). During his incarceration, Pell wrote a series of journals reflecting on his time in custody.

Pell maintained the support of Pope Francis throughout his legal travails, although their visions for the Catholic church differed. His conviction and subsequent acquittal divided Catholics worldwide, leaving many struggling to reconcile their faith with the church’s failure to satisfactorily address child sexual abuse.

The novelist Christos Tsolkias said: “The ugly story of sexual and physical abuse in the Catholic church [is] one of the defining stories of our age”. Others, such as Father Frank Brennan, remained convinced not only that Pell was innocent, but that there was “no doubt that he was made a scapegoat” and should never have been charged, calling it “a travesty”.

In 2005 Pell was made a Companion of the Order of Australia and in 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal. He is survived by his brother David. His sister Margaret died in 2021.

• George Pell, Catholic cardinal and archbishop, born 8 June 1941; died 10 January 2023.

In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International


Jennifer King

The GuardianTramp

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