Cardinal George Pell dies in Rome aged 81

george pell

In life, opinions on Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, were polarised. The reaction to his death hasn’t been any different.

Some in the clergy urged people to pray for the 81-year-old, while others outside the church have begun putting his legacy under the microscope.

Cardinal Pell died on Tuesday in Rome, after complications during hip surgery.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his condolences and said the death had come as a shock to many.

“Well, for many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I’ll express my condolences to all those who are mourning today.”

The Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said worshippers were shocked. 

“Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Pell, for comfort and consolation for his family and for all of those who loved him and are grieving him at this time.”

Cardinal Pell became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, and the Archbishop of Sydney in 2001.

He was appointed as a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

In 2018 he was found guilty of abusing two choirboys in the 1990s, and spent more than a year behind bars, before his conviction was quashed by the High Court.

Old man in black religious robe in handcuffs next to police officer
Cardinal George Pell was in 2018 sentenced to six years behind bars. (AAP: Erik Anderson)
Man walking surrounded by press pack and police officers
Cardinal George Pell escorted by police as he departs Melbourne Magistrates Court in 2017. (AAP Image: Joe Castro)

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, a staunch defender of Cardinal Pell, said Australia had lost a great son.

“His incarceration on charges that the High Court ultimately scathingly dismissed was a modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death.

“His prison journals should become a classic: a fine man wrestling with a cruel fate and trying to make sense of the unfairness of suffering.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the church has lost a great leader.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the church has lost a great leader. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)

Miles Pattenden, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, said the Cardinal’s legacy would be “mixed”.

“George Pell was one of the most conservative figures of his generation in the global church,” Dr Pattenden said.

“He was a staunch defender of traditional positions on morality and also on questions of liturgy and, of course, that won him many admirers in the Church and just as many opponents.”

Man in white religious robe with red cap reading out sermon with others praying
He became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, and then the Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. (AAP Image: Jane Dempster)

Dr Pattenden said Pell had “many admirers”, but there were also “many people who hold him at least indirectly responsible for many of the problems which have assailed the Australian church over the past 20 or 30 years, and who wish that he’d been called to account in a fuller way for some of his decisions as Archbishop”.

Former member for New England Tony Windsor said his thoughts were with trauma survivors.

The Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Andrew Comensoli, said Cardinal Pell was a significant figure “both in Australia and Internationally”.

“At this immediate moment, let our prayers go out to the God of Jesus Christ, whom Cardinal Pell wholeheartedly believed in and followed, that he may be welcomed into eternal life,” he said.

Australia’s former ambassador to the United States, Joe Hockey, said on social media that he was upset by the news of Cardinal Pell’s death.

A law firm has confirmed it will continue to progress a civil claim on behalf of the father of a former altar boy who accused Cardinal Pell of sexual abuse.

Shine Lawyers said there was still evidence for the claim to rely on, despite not being able to cross examine the Cardinal at any trial.

“The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne is also listed as a defendant in this matter,” Shine Lawyers chief legal officer, Lisa Flynn, said in a statement.

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