Cardinal George Pell, who was then convicted of child sexual abuse, has died at the age of 81.

Cardinal George Pell, the conservative theologian who served as Pope Francis’ Vatican chief financial officer and was acquitted after becoming the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of pedophilia, died Tuesday in Rome. He was 81 years old.

His death was confirmed by Peter Comnisoli, one of his successors as Archbishop of Melbourne, who said the cardinal had died of heart complications after undergoing hip surgery. Cardinal Pell was in Rome to attend Funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI last week.

Cardinal Pell has spent more than a year in solitary confinement in his native Australia after a jury found him guilty in 2018 of assaulting two young choristers at Melbourne Cathedral when he was the city’s archbishop in the 1990s. An Australian High Court overturned his conviction in 2020.

Even after his acquittal, the cardinal remained a polarizing figure in Australia and the Church. To his critics, he was a symbol of the abuse crisis. To his supporters, he was a scapegoat targeted by enemies of the Church.

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Cardinal Pell, who also served as Archbishop of Sydney, established one of the world’s first programs to compensate victims of child sexual abuse. But critics say he has overseen a culture of secrecy, using the program — which requires victims to waive their right to civil legal action — to silence them.

A high-profile Australian investigation known as A.J Royal Commissionbegan investigating pedophilia in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It found that the cardinal knew of child molestation by clergy in the 1970s, but did not take sufficient steps to address it.

The cardinal told the inquiry in 2016 that he did not know if the crimes of Gerald Ridsdale — a priest who was transferred from parish to parish by the church in the 1970s and 1980s, and later convicted on dozens of child sexual abuse charges — were. general knowledge.

“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” Cardinal Peel said said the investigation. “The suffering was, of course, real and I am very sorry for it, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils done by Ridsdal.”

Cardinal Pell gave evidence to the inquiry via video link from Rome after his lawyers said he was too ill to travel to Australia. Bell suffered from high blood pressure, heart disease, and cardiac dysfunction, and one of the doctors concluded that the long flight was dangerous to his health.

George Bell was born in Ballarat, a gold mining town in the Australian state of Victoria, on June 8, 1941. His father was an Anglican non-practice and heavyweight boxing champion. His mother was a devout Catholic.

In his youth, he played Australian rules football, and his natural athleticism and towering frame — he was over 6 feet tall — saw him sign a contract with a major club while still a teenager. He chose to pursue a career in the priesthood instead, and was ordained at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1966.

He quickly rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming the most powerful Australian in the history of the clergy, and an ally of Pope Benedict when he led the Church, and later of Pope Francis. (Benedict made a rare visit to L Australia in 2008.)

Cardinal Pell held orthodox views on contemporary social issues, including same-sex relations, abortion, and the role of women in the clergy. He forged close ties with Australia’s conservative political establishment, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic, visit him in prison.

In a 2001 radio interview, Cardinal suggested that couples considering divorce should be offered financial incentives to stay together. In the same interview, he said He said There was no “possibility” for the church to have female priestesses. He once described Avatar – at the time the highest-grossing film in Australian history – as “old-fashioned pagan propaganda”.

In 2002, Cardinal Pell was criticized by victim support groups for remarking that “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.” He did not retract the comment when interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald after few daysalthough he claimed his original statements were quoted out of context because they did not include his condemnation of sexual abuse in the church.

In contrast to his hardline conservative stance on the Church’s moral teachings, the cardinal was a financial reformer who was recruited to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2014 and tasked with overhauling its finances. This focus on transparency – honed during his early years in Australia – caused him to fall out with church bureaucracy over his attempts to audit The Origins and Spending of the Vatican.

Although Cardinal Peel’s career was effective He was derailed when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against allegations of sexual assault, and one of the legacies of his time checking the books was the Vatican mount. corruption Investigation.

In a statement on Wednesday, Abbott, the right-wing former prime minister, called Cardinal Pell’s imprisonment “a modern form of crucifixion. Reputationally at least some kind of living death.”

In the 2018 sexual assault At trial, the prosecution relied on the evidence of a former choirboy who was in his 30s and had a young family. He reported the alleged abuse to police in 2015, after another former teen died of a drug overdose. The other choirboy never made public accusations against Cardinal Peel. (Prosecutors dropped a separate sexual assault case after the trial began.)

Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name has not been publicly released, said he respected the acquittal and accepted the outcome. He said it highlighted the difficulties in child sexual abuse cases to convince a criminal court that the crime occurred beyond all reasonable doubt.

“It is a very high standard to meet – a heavy burden,” he said in a statement at the time. “But the price we pay for tipping the system in favor of the accused is that many sexual crimes against children go unpunished.”

Miles Pattenden, a historian at the Australian Catholic University, said the cardinal was a “very polarizing figure” admired by a minority of Australian Catholics for his upholding of traditional morality.

But many Australians saw him as “complicit in covering up pedophilia”, Pattenden said, and as a man “standing behind some abusive priests now convicted to an inconceivable degree”.

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