Pope praises late Cardinal who once served 13 months on child sexual abuse charges

Cardinal George Pell
Australian Cardinal George Pell looks on during an interview with Reuters in Rome, Italy on December 7, 2020. File photo: Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Vatican City: Pope Francis on Wednesday praised late Australian Cardinal George Pell for persevering in trying times, a reference to when he spent more than a year in prison on child sexual abuse accusations before he was fully acquitted.

Francis, in an Italian-language message sent to the dean of the College of Cardinals, also thanked Pell, who served as the Holy See's economy minister, for laying the groundwork for financial reform in the Vatican with "determination and wisdom."

Pell, a leading Catholic conservative, died on Tuesday night in Rome of cardiac arrest while in a hospital for hip replacement surgery. He was 81.

In his message to the dean, Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Francis said he was saddened by the news of Pell's sudden death.

Francis called Pell, who always maintained his innocence, a "faithful servant who, without vacillating, followed his Lord with perseverance even in the hour of trial."

The pope said he was grateful for Pell's "coherent and committed" dedication to the Church.

Pope Francis holds a news conference aboard the papal plane on his flight back after visiting Canada, July 29, 2022. PHOTO: Reuters

Church sources in Rome said Pell's body would most likely lie in state in a side chapel in St. Peter's Basilica ahead of requiem Mass there, probably on Friday.

Traditionally, the dean of cardinals, in this case Re, says the funeral Mass and then the pope arrives at the end to give the final blessing.

SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, in a statement called on the Vatican to show "restraint" in funeral arrangements "unless the Church hierarchy wants to deepen already deep wounds."

The Church in Australia has said that Pell will be buried in the crypt at St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, where Pell served as archbishop.

High-profile trials
An Australian appeals court ruling in 2020 quashed convictions that Pell sexually assaulted two choir boys in the 1990s.

In May 2018, Pell was committed to stand trial on multiple historical sexual offence charges relating to alleged incidents at a pool in his hometown of Ballarat in the 1970s and at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s.

The so-called swimmers' case was dropped after a judge did not allow certain evidence.

Pell, who denied the allegations, did not take the stand at two trials, the first of which ended with a hung jury.

Head of the Catholic Church in Australia Cardinal George Pell leads the World Youth Day opening mass in Sydney, Australia on July 15, 2008. File photo: Reuters/Daniel Munoz

At the re-trial, a jury unanimously convicted him on five charges of assaulting two teenage choirboys at the cathedral when he was archbishop of Melbourne and he was sentenced to six years in jail.

He lost his first appeal and was in solitary confinement for 404 days until Australia's seven High Court judges unanimously overturned his conviction, saying it was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.

"Look, it was bad, it wasn't like a holiday, but I don’t want to exaggerate how difficult that was. But there were many dark moments," Pell told Reuters of his jail time.

It allowed 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 that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.

Pell 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."

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 old Italian guard to reforms he wanted to enact. In an interview with Reuters in July, Pope Francis praised Pell as "the genius" who had insisted on an overarching method to control money flows and combat corruption.

Even before the sexual assault accusations, Pell was a polarising figure in the two decades that he dominated the Australian Catholic hierarchy, revered by conservative Catholics for his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and women's ordination.

He had been living in Rome since his acquittal and had several meetings with Pope Francis. Pell often attended the pontiff's Masses and Francis praised him publicly after his return.

After his return to Rome, Pell became a familiar face around 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.

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