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Cardinal George Pell, 81, dies in Rome after surgery

Cardinal George Pell in 2017 appearance at the Vatican


John Burger - published on 01/10/23

Australian native had successfully fought false charges of sexual abuse.

Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop emeritus of Sydney, Australia, and prefect emeritus of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, died suddenly in Rome on Tuesday.

He was 81 and died from complications following hip replacement surgery. He had been living in Rome since 2020, when he was released from prison after the High Court of Australia overturned his conviction on sexual abuse charges, an experience he wrote about in Prison Journal.

In July, Pope Francis praised him as a “genius” and lauded the work he did to put the economic situation of the Holy See on better footing.

Early life

Pell was born on June 8, 1941, in Ballarat, Australia, and studied for the priesthood at Propaganda Fide College in Rome. He was ordained on December 16, 1966, and held a licentiate in theology from the Urbaniana University of Rome, a master’s degree in education from Monash University and a doctorate of philosophy in Church history from the University of Oxford.

Cardinal Pell served as Director of the Aquinas Campus of the Institute of Catholic Education (1974-84) and principal of the Institute of Catholic Education (1981-1984). He was a founding member of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria and was visiting scholar at Campion Hall, Oxford University, in 1979 and at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, in 1983.

Accomplishments and ecclesial life

Pell’s commitment to Catholic higher education is also reflected in the role he played in establishing campuses of the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, giving the east coast of Australia its first Catholic law school and first Catholic medical school.

Christendom College in Virginia conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on Cardinal Pell in 2006, and in 2008 Thomas Aquinas College in California awarded him the Saint Thomas Aquinas Medallion for his service to the mission and teachings of the Church. He received honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from the University of Notre Dame Australia in 2010 and Australian Catholic University in 2014, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the Church in Australia and his appointment as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

On March 30, 1987, he was elected titular Bishop of Scala and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and received episcopal ordination on May 21, 1987.

From 1988-1997 he was chairman of Caritas Australia. During that same period, he was a member of the National Catholic Commission and from 1994-1997 he was secretary to the Bishops’ Committee for Education. In 1989, Cardinal Pell was appointed chairman of the committee charged with setting up the new Australian Catholic University, and in 1991-1995 he served as pro-chancellor of the University’s Foundation. From 1985-1987 he was rector of Corpus Christi College, the provincial seminary for Victoria and Tasmania.

In 1990, he attended the Synod of Bishops in Rome on the preparation of priests, where he served as one of the Synod spokesmen and on the committee which prepared the final Synod message. He was appointed Apostolic Visitor to the national seminaries of New Zealand (1994), Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1995), the Pacific (1996) and Irian Jaya and Sulawesi (1998) by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in the Vatican.

From 1990 to 2000, he was a member of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Doctrine and Morals since 2001.

Installation as archbishop & Vatican appointments

On July 16, 1996, Pope John Paul II appointed him Metropolitan Archbishop of Melbourne. He was installed as archbishop on August 16, 1996 in a ceremony at the Exhibition Buildings, and received the pallium from the pope at St. Peter’s in Rome on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 1997.

In February 1998, Cardinal Pell attended the Constitutional Convention in Canberra as a delegate appointed by the Prime Minister. He served on the Resolutions Committee responsible for drafting motions put to the Convention and moved the motion in support of the Republican model, which was finally adopted by the Convention. On March 21, 2001, he addressed a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament on the drug problem.

In November 1998, Cardinal Pell attended the Synod for Oceania. He was appointed by John Paul II to represent the bishops of Australia and Oceania at the Special Synod for European Bishops in 1999 and the Synod of Bishops held in 2001.

In April 2002, he was named President of the Vox Clara committee for the English translations of liturgical texts.

On March 26, 2001, the pope appointed Cardinal Pell the eighth Metropolitan Archbishop of Sydney. He was installed as Archbishop at St. Mary’s Cathedral on May 10, 2001, and the following month received the pallium for the second time at St. Peter’s in Rome on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Elevation to Cardinal & dedication to youth and family

He was created and proclaimed cardinal by John Paul II in the consistory of October 21, 2003, of the Title of S. Maria Domenica Mazzarello (St. Mary Domenica Mazzarello).

He was appointed a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship in January 2005.

Pope Benedict XVI also appointed Cardinal Pell to the Synod of Bishops held in October 2006 to mark the close of the Year of the Eucharist, and to the October 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. From 2001 to 2008 he served successive terms on the Council of the Synod of Bishops, and again from 2012. In 2008 Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal Pell one of three President-Delegates of the Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.

Cardinal Pell as Archbishop both in Melbourne and Sydney was involved in leading pilgrimages of young Australians to World Youth Days in Rome, Toronto, Cologne and Madrid. Following the Toronto World Youth Day, the Archdiocese of Sydney examined the possibility of hosting the event, placing a formal bid for this honor with the Holy See in 2005. The success of this bid was announced at the conclusion of World Youth Day in Cologne in August 2005. The 23rd World Youth Day was held in Sydney from July 15-20, 2008, forming the largest gathering in Australia’s history. Over 110,000 registered pilgrims from more than 170 nations, including Pope Benedict XVI, traveled to Sydney for the occasion, together with another 123,000 registered pilgrims from Australia. Cardinal Pell celebrated the Opening Mass at Barangaroo on Sydney Harbor before 150,000 pilgrims. At the papal arrival, 500,000 people welcomed Pope Benedict on his first visit to Australia, and the final Mass at Randwick Racecourse, which was celebrated by the Holy Father on July 20, attracted over 400,000 people.

Cardinal Pell’s interest in and support for young people, marriage and families was demonstrated not only in his preaching and many public statements on these matters, but also in his involvement in founding the Australian campus of the international John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family; the institution of Australia’s first independent commissioner to handle sexual abuse complaints against clergy; and in the creation of the Mary of the Cross Centre in Melbourne to assist families with a member affected by drug or alcohol abuse. As Archbishop of Melbourne he commissioned the production of To Know, Worship and Love, a series of texts for use in religious education in Catholic schools.

As archbishop in Melbourne and Sydney, Cardinal Pell established Life Offices to promote deeper respect for human life from conception until natural death. In 2003, he inaugurated a competitive bi-annual grant from the Archdiocese of Sydney to support medical research into the development and application of treatments using adult stem cells. In 2008, Cardinal Pell’s work in defending the dignity of human life was recognized with the conferral of the $100,000 Mysterium Vitae Award by the Archdiocese of Seoul in South Korea.

Prolific writer and speaker

Cardinal Pell wrote widely in religious and secular magazines, learned journals and newspapers in Australia and overseas. From 2001-2014, he was a weekly columnist for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. Cardinal Pell was a well-known public speaker, who made regular appearances on radio and television and lectured in the US, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Croatia, Canada and Korea, and every state of Australia.

In September 1996, Oxford University Press published Issues of Faith and Morals, written by Cardinal Pell for senior secondary classes and parish groups. Other publications include Catholicism and the Architecture of Freedom (1999), Be Not Afraid (2004), God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics and Society (2007), Free for All: Negotiating Freedom in a World of Individuals (2009), Test Everything: Hold Fast to What is Good (2010), One Christian Perspective on Climate Change (2011) and Contemplating Christ with Luke, a book of homilies on St. Luke’s Gospel, published by Connor Court in 2012.

On September 9, 2008, he was appointed president delegate of the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

In December 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal Pell a member of both the newly-established Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, and the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Healthcare Workers. He was appointed to the Congregation for Bishops in September 2012.

On April 13, 2013, he was made a member of the Council of Cardinals established to advise Pope Francis in the government of the Universal Church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia,”Pastor Bonus.”

On February 24, 2014, he was appointed Prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See and the Vatican City State.

He participated in the conclave of April 2005, which elected Pope Benedict XVI and in the conclave of March 2013, which elected Pope Francis.

Unjustly accused, sentenced and exonerated

Pell stepped aside in 2017 when he was charged by Australian authorities of sexually abusing two minor boys while he served as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. In 2020, at 78, he became the highest Catholic Church official ever found guilty of abusing children. He was sentenced to six years in prison and was eventually exonerated. But he spent over 400 days in prison in isolation, an experience he wrote about in his two-volume Prison Journal.

Pell steadfastly denied the charges, brought by a man in his 30s. In a 2016 police interview, the cardinal called the charges a “product of fantasy.”

The incidents were alleged to have occurred in and near the priests’ sacristy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne, following the celebration of Sunday Mass in 1996. Pell was alleged to be still vested when he allegedly forced himself upon two 13-year-old choirboys. But he would regularly greet congregants on or near the cathedral steps after Sunday Mass. He would always be accompanied when robed in the cathedral. And there would be continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday Mass, when the abuse is alleged to have taken place.

In April 2020, the High Court reviewed the conviction and said that for all five charges there were many improbabilities that had not been fully considered by the jury in the trial that convicted him. There is “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted,” the justices, led by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, wrote. The ruling was 7-0.

Last year, Pope Francis praised Cardinal Pell for being a “genius” who insisted that the Vatican needed a structure that would control money flow and guard against corruption.

In earlier years Pell played soccer with the Richmond Football Club.

A popular biography of Cardinal Pell by journalist Tess Livingstone was published by Duffy and Snellgrove in 2002, and an expanded American edition of this biography was released by Ignatius Press in 2004.

AbuseCardinalsDeathPope FrancisVatican
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