11 January 2023, The Tablet

Cardinal Pell dies aged 81

The Archbishop of Brisbane paid tribute to Pell’s leadership qualities, sense of humour, and “spiritual poise and strength”.

Cardinal Pell dies aged 81

Cardinal George Pell in 2008, during World Youth Day in Sydney. He was crucial in ensuring that the city hosted the event.
Robert Wallace/Alamy

Cardinal George Pell, the Australian prelate who exercised an enormous influence across the English-speaking Catholic world and led efforts to reform Vatican finances, has died at the age of 81.

The cardinal died in Rome following heart complications after a hip operation.

The cardinal served as both Archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne and, in 2014, was appointed by Pope Francis as the first Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. He also served as a member of the Pope’s advisory body of cardinals.

After three years in the finance post, he was forced to return to Australia to defend himself against allegations of historical sexual abuse. Although he was convicted and spent 13 months in prison, he was acquitted by the High Court of Australia in 2020

Born in Ballarat, in the state of Victoria, in 1941, the young George Pell, a gifted sportsman, was offered the chance to play Australian Rules football professionally but instead chose to enter the seminary and train for the priesthood. He studied in Rome and then, following ordination, completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford in Early Church History.

He was ordained as an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne in 1987 and was appointed archbishop of the archdiocese in 1996. In 2001 he was appointed Archbishop of Sydney and created a cardinal by John Paul II two years later. 

Pell had a combative, no-nonsense style and was never shy of entering into public debates, including with the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins and through a weekly newspaper column.

He took a politically conservative line and was an outspoken defender of Church teaching, particularly in sexual ethics. He strongly believed that Catholicism needed to make itself distinctive.

Pell served on several important congregations in Rome and was instrumental in ensuring bishops were appointed to Australian dioceses that followed his line of thinking.

He was crucial in ensuring that Sydney hosted the 2008 World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics from across the world, which was attended by Pope Benedict XVI. It was a successful event which bore witness to the Christian faith in the public square. 

Although he could be publicly critical of Pope Francis, the Argentine Pope trusted Pell to reform the Vatican’s chaotic finances in the early years of the pontificate. Francis praised Pell as “the genius” who insisted that the Vatican needed an economy ministry with oversight to control money flows and combat corruption.

The Australian cardinal encountered significant internal resistance in his reform plans, although one of his major successes was in overhauling the management of the Vatican bank. 

Pell’s time in Church leadership saw him play a central role in trying to tackle the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Australia, including the setting up of a scheme to handle complaints and pay compensation. But he was heavily criticised by a Royal Commission into sexual abuse, which accused him of failing to tackle cases of abusive priests in the 1970s and 80s.

Pell said he was “surprised” by the commission’s findings adding that they are “not supported by the evidence”.

The Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, a former president of the Australian bishops’ conference, said that Pell’s legacy would be “complex, even as contradictory as the man himself”.

The archbishop paid tribute to Pell’s leadership qualities, sense of humour, and “spiritual poise and strength” throughout his legal troubles. 

“He didn’t claim to be a saint; he knew he was flawed. But he did claim – and rightly – to be a man of faith and a man of the Church,” Archbishop Coleridge writes

“Those who didn’t know him thought Pell heartless and humourless, and his media persona could suggest this. Yet if George Pell had anything they were a good heart and a sense of humour.” 

Pope Francis offered his condolences in a telegram to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

He remembered “with heartfelt gratitude [Pell's] consistent and committed witness, his dedication to the Gospel and to the Church, and especially his diligent collaboration with the Holy See in its recent economic reform, for which he laid the foundations with determination and wisdom”. 

Cardinal Battista Re will celebrate a Requiem Mass for Pell in St Peter’s on Saturday, with the Pope presiding over the concluding rites of Ultima Commendatio and Valedictio.

The body will then be brought to Sydney for a funeral mass at St Mary’s.

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99