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ROME – One of the Catholic Church’s most towering figures, Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was acquitted of historical child sexual abuse and was once a top aide in Pope Francis’s financial reform efforts, died late Tuesday in Rome due to a complication after a routine surgery, sources say.
Sources close to Pell told Crux that he suffered complications following a minor procedure at Salvator Mundi hospital in Rome, and passed away shortly before 9 p.m. local time.
According to the source, Pell will be flown back to Australia following his Vatican funeral, and he will be buried in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, where he served as archbishop for 13 years before moving to the Vatican.
In addition to being one of the Catholic Church’s tallest prelates, Pell was also one of the most influential.
Long seen as leader of the conservative bloc in Australian Catholicism who for years played a leading role in setting the tone of the Catholic Church in the oceanic nation, Pell was also a prominent figure in Francis’s initial reform efforts.
Shortly after his election in 2013, Francis established a Council of Cardinals advising him on matters of church governance and reform, naming Pell as one of the council’s first members and appointing him head of the then-newly established Secretariat for the Economy.
The Vatican’s third most powerful prelate at the time, Pell was tasked with reforming the Vatican’s murky finances, which involved putting together balance sheets, conducting audits, and attempting to loosen the powerful Secretariat of State’s grasp on a significant portion of the Holy See’s assets.
Due to Pell’s vigorous reform efforts, a tug-of-war of sorts broke out between Pell and the Secretariat of State, in which Pell was seen as the eventual loser, when Pope Francis announced legislation cementing the Secretariat of State’s control over the purse strings.
However, that decision was later reversed by Francis, who restricted the Secretariat of State’s transactional authority after a scandal involving a shady London real estate deal lost the Vatican millions.
Pell stepped down from his role in the Secretariat for the Economy in 2017 when he was charged by Australian authorities of sexually abusing two minor boys while Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.
Despite Pell’s repeated pleas of innocence, he was unanimously convicted in a second trial, after the first ended in a hung jury, and was sentenced to six years behind bars. Pell spent over 400 days in prison in isolation before he was eventually acquitted in April 2020 by Australia’s High Court.
Pell then published a 3-volume set of prison diaries, offering readers a glimpse of his daily life and spiritual reflections during his time in prison.
After his acquittal, he accused his main rival in the Secretariat of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu – who was serving as sostituto at the time, a position akin to a chief of staff, and who is now among 10 defendants standing trial for financial crimes in relation to the London deal – of orchestrating the allegations against him in 2017 in a bid to oust him over his attempted reform. Becciu has denied the allegations.
Born in Ballarat in June 1941, Pell entered the seminary in Werribee 1960 and was ordained a priest in 1966.
He quickly became a rising star in the Australian church and went on to have a prominent ecclesial career, being appointed as auxiliary bishop for Melbourne in 1987 and as archbishop in 1996. He was also appointed as a member of several Vatican departments.
Pell was appointed archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003 and participated in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, who passed away Dec. 31 at the age of 95. Pell attended Benedict’s funeral on Jan. 5.
Given his longstanding influence in Australian Catholicism, the explosive public controversy over his abuse conviction and acquittal, and his role in Vatican reform, among many other things, Pell is easily one Catholicism’s modern giants whose left behind a complex legacy that won’t easily be forgotten.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen