VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Cardinal George Pell, who once spearheaded financial reform for Pope Francis at the Vatican, died Tuesday (Jan. 10) at the age of 81 due to complications after hip replacement surgery in Rome.
An influential conservative figure at the Vatican, he was praised for his forceful efforts to reform Vatican finances, but his life and career were marred in recent years by sexual abuse allegations.
Pope Francis, who praised Pell in the past as a “genius” for his work in restoring the notoriously corrupt Vatican finances, said in a statement Wednesday, ”I gratefully remember his coherent and committed witness, his dedication to the Gospel and the church, and especially his diligent collaboration with the Holy See in the context of the recent economic reform, for which he lay the groundwork with determination and wisdom.”
Francis also expressed his closeness to Pell’s friends and surviving relatives and asked faithful to pray for the deceased cardinal.
“Cardinal Pell was one of the giants of modern Catholicism. His death is a tremendous loss to the universal Church, which he loved passionately, served magnificently, and suffered for greatly,” wrote George Weigel, a biographer of St. John Paul II and a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in an email to Religion News Service.
At the Vatican, Pell worked closely with the financial auditor Libero Milone, who mourned the loss of “a great man and a sincere friend.”
Pell became the first cardinal to be convicted of sexual abuse in 2017 and spent more than a year in prison until his conviction was overturned on appeal by the Australian high court, which cited a lack of evidence. While in jail, he wrote three books detailing his physical and spiritual experience, which he called his “prison journal.”
Born in Ballarat, Australia, in 1941, Pell distinguished himself as a heavyweight boxing champion and football player in his youth before being called to the priesthood. After studying theology and philosophy at the Urbaniana Pontifical University in Rome and further study in Oxford, he returned to Australia, where he quickly rose to prominence.
John Paul appointed Pell archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, then archbishop of Sydney in 2001. In 2003, John Paul made Pell a cardinal, and he participated at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
In Australia, Pell’s ministry was challenged by growing clergy sexual abuse scandals in the country. His investigations of abuse cases in Melbourne, while ahead of other such efforts in the church, failed to satisfy demands for accountability and transparency frm Australian Catholics and abuse survivors. In 2002, he was confronted with allegations that he had sexually abused a minor, but the accusations were dismissed.
Pell’s unyielding conservative stance on doctrinal matters and his imposing personality drew attention at the Vatican. When Francis became pope in 2013, Pell was nominated to take part in his select group of advisers in the Council of Cardinals. Francis later chose him to lead his financial reform at the Vatican by appointing him secretary of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy.
As financial czar, Pell quickly encountered opposition, chiefly in the person of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was substitute, or chief of staff, at the Secretariat of State at the time. The two cardinals’ rivalry was highlighted as Becciu, currently facing trial at the Vatican, was charged with abuse of office, embezzlement and taking part in a criminal conspiracy.
“I pray the Lord to forgive him for having fueled the slanderous suspicion that I was the one to conspire against him, even by funding his accusers in the pedophilia trial in Australia,” Becciu told the Italian news agency Ansa on Wednesday.