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.
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.
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.
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.”
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