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VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) – The prominent Australian prelate, Cardinal George Pell, famously imprisoned in 2019 after being unjustly convicted of child sexual abuse, has died on the evening of January 10, in Rome.

The cardinal was a key figure in attempts to implement financial reforms in the Vatican, uncovering widespread misconduct – misconduct which is now the subject of two high profile legal cases in the Vatican.

One of the chief opponents to Pell’s reforms, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, is currently on trial, while Pell’s collaborator in the reforms is now suing the Vatican for unjust dismissal – dismissal which occurred months before Pell had to face allegations of sexual abuse.

Death followed ‘routine hip replacement surgery’

The National Catholic Register’s Ed Pentin broke the news online that Cardinal Pell had died on the evening of January 10.

The cardinal was 81 years old and had reportedly been undergoing “routine hip replacement surgery” earlier in the day, at a hospital in Rome. Pentin wrote that, according to Pell’s personal secretary Father Joseph Hamilton, the cardinal suffered a suspected cardiac arrest after the procedure, which had itself been a success. 

Fr. Hamilton told Pentin that they were awaiting an autopsy result. Pell would have a funeral Mass in Rome, Hamilton told the Register, and would be buried in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

‘A man of faith in a world that wishes to hide from the faith’

News of Pell’s death has swept through the online Catholic world swiftly, with many Catholics quick to respond. Particularly notable was the number of clergy who spoke of their appreciation, and affection for the cardinal. 

Deacon Nick Donnelly was a very prominent supporter of the cardinal while Pell was serving his jail sentence in Australia. Donnelly regularly encouraged people to write to Pell while in prison, asking them to show their support for the beleaguered cardinal. He wrote that Pell’s death “hit me hard.”

Archbishop Anthony Fisher, the current archbishop of Sydney, wrote in a Facebook post that “[i]t is with deep sadness that I can confirm His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell, passed away in Rome in the early hours of this morning. This news comes as a great shock to all of us. 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.”

READ: Cardinal Pell: Pope ‘will have to speak’ against dissident German Synod

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, echoed Fisher, saying that Pell “provided strong and clear leadership within the Catholic Church in Australia.”

In this handout photo provided by World Youth Day, Cardinal George Pell and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI look on during the Papal Farewell and Volunteer Thank You at The Domain during World Youth Day Sydney 2008 on July 21, 2008 in Sydney, Australia.

Sydney’s auxiliary bishop, Bishop Richard Umbers, called Pell “larger than life…a highly intelligent and well-read man who took a genuine interest in everyone around him. A pioneer for much good in Sydney, Australia, and the entire church.”

“I am shocked because I saw him often as a fellow resident in the same house and we talked just a few days ago,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller said in a statement to LifeSiteNews. “He was a great witness to the truth of the gospel and worked very well and diligently in the Lord’s vineyard. But he also suffered much for the Church of Christ and has been slandered and innocently thrown into prison because of his fidelity to the crucified and risen Jesus.”

Dr. Robert Moynihan, the founder and editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine, penned some initial reflections for LifeSite on the late cardinal, describing him as a “big, powerful, warm-hearted man who was weakened by the suffering he passed through.”

“The charges against him were revealed to have been false. Yet he spent over 400 days in prison,” Moynihan noted to LifeSite. “I cannot help but feel that his death was due in part to the weakening of his health brought on by the suffering he passed through.”

He attempted to bring order to the Vatican finances. He revealed there were 1 billion euros in off-balance sheet accounts. Perhaps he was too honest? I think he was Australian, and never could function in a Byzantine world like that of the Curia.

Continuing, Moynihan described Pell as “a man of faith in a world that wishes to hide from the faith, or overthrow the faith, or mock the faith, because the faith reveals the evil of their deeds. He was a giant of a man, and he was a man who suffered much for being a faithful man of the Church.”

Cdl. George Pell speaking in an interview days before he died.

In comments provided to LifeSite’s Maike Hickson, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller stated that he “appreciated” Cardinal Pell “very much” and that his death is a “heavy loss.” Brandmüller added that he “admired his attitude as someone who was falsely accused.”

Live Action’s Lila Rose echoed such sentiments, describing Pell as a “brilliant, faithful and humble man who suffered greatly under false accusations but after clearing his name, continued faithfully serving Christ and the Church.”

Declan Ganley – who disputed Ireland’s church COVID-19 closures in the High Court – described Pell one who “was put through a ‘white martyrdom’ of the most deplorable calumny as a result of going after financial corruption inside the Vatican and getting so very close to rooting it all out.”

Sportsman who surrendered to God’s call 

George Pell was born in Ballarat, Victoria on June 8, 1941. Born to parents of English and Irish descent, Pell spent his education in Catholic schools in Victoria. 

He was a very gifted sportsman, but in 1960 he accepted his call to the priesthood and entered seminary in Victoria, before being assigned to complete his studies in Rome in 1963. He was ordained a priest by Cardinal Agagianian in St. Peter’s Basilica, on December 16, 1966.

Pell undertook a Licentiate in theology in Rome, a Masters in education in Melbourne, and in 1971 completed a Doctorate in Church History at the University of Oxford.

He then spent a number of years serving in parishes in his native Australia, from 1971 through 1984. 

Aged only 45, he was then appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II in 1987. Some 10 years later, Pell was made Archbishop of Melbourne on July 16, 1996, receiving the pallium from the pope in July 1997. During this time, Pell was a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from 1990 to 2000.

He did not remain much longer in Melbourne, as John Paul II made him Archbishop of Sydney in 2001, a position he held until 2014. John Paul II then announced Pell’s rise to the college of cardinals in the fall of 2003. 

Cardinal George Pell during his 2012 Christmas message, while Archbishop of Sydney

As cardinal and even before, Pell held a number of key positions in the Roman Curia, both under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

He was a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family, and then was appointed to the Presidential Committee of the Council in 2002. In 2005, he became a member of the Supreme Committee of the Pontifical Missions Societies.

From 2001 through 2008 he served on the Council of the Synod of Bishops, while in 2007 and 2008 he was successively appointed to the Council of Cardinals on Organisational and Economic Problems of the Holy See and the Governing Committee of the International Catholic Migration Commission.

READ: ‘Infamous’ social policies accepting abortion caused global gender imbalance: Sydney archbishop

Pell was president of the committee advising the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship on English translations of the liturgy, and was then appointed to the same Congregation in January 2005.

Pell participated in the 2005 conclave which elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, during which he was believed to have been a key supporter of Ratzinger. 

Pell was known for his adherence to Church teaching on a number of topics which are under attack currently. These included his opposition to female ordination and the abolition of clerical celibacy, but particularly his opposition to the promotion of homosexuality and abortion.

READ: Australia’s Cardinal Pell: Dispels ‘heresy’ that Catholics can approve contraception ‘in good conscience’

‘Brilliant, much maligned churchman’

Under Pope Francis, Pell was appointed as the first Prefect of the newly established Secretariat for the Economy in February 2014, with the public mandate of overseeing finances within the Vatican. He was appointed to lead the newly established Vatican office for a term of five years. 

Cardinal George Pell, then head of Pope Francis’ new secretariat on Vatican finances, stands outside the Synod hall October 13, 2014 after the Synod on the Family’s controversial interim report was read.

Pell swiftly set about implementing reforms to the financial system within the Vatican, and according to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi – as recounted in Henry Sire’s The Dictator Pope – Pell announced in February 2015 that he had found “€1.4 billion” which was unaccounted for in the Vatican’s balance sheets.

As Sire recounts, “these revelations – and Cardinal Pell’s blunt, honest, undiplomatic style – did not make him popular with the officials around him.” Sire writes that Pell was opposed by four of his fellow cardinals: Domenico Calcano (president of APSA, which oversees Vatican funds); Guiseppe Versaldi (president of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs); Guiseppe Bertello (president of the governorate of the Vatican State); and Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State.

Sire documents that these prelates consistently, and politically, opposed Pell’s financial reforms. The Vatican’s finances have been plagued with scandal for decades, and Pell’s attempted reforms also faced particularly strong opposition from former number two in the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, opposition which has even been linked to the allegations of sexual abuse made against Pell.

Becciu himself is currently standing trial alongside nine other people connected to the financial scandal surrounding a Vatican property investment in London which he authorized. The cardinal “personally authorized” transactions and allegedly kept them off official Vatican ledgers in order not to draw the attention of Pell.

Pell was assisted in his attempts to purge the Vatican of financial misconduct by the auditor general of the Vatican – Libero Milone. The story of both Pell and Milone is crucially intertwined in their attempt to tackle the financial corruption and the suffering they endured for doing so.

Cardinal George Pell

Together with Pell, Milone was apparently “increasingly effective” and “came too close to uncovering dangerous things.”

READ: Vatican auditor forced to resign, ‘too close to uncovering dangerous things’

Consequently, Milone and his deputy were forced to resign in 2017, for which they are now suing the Secretariat of State to the amount of $9.25 million. The suit argues that they were unjustly accused of spying and embezzlement in June of 2017 by Cardinal Angelo Becciu – accusations which, they argue, stemmed from their audit which uncovered widespread corruption within the hierarchy of the Holy See. 

He also argues that the the accusations were the result of his audit uncovering uncomfortable financial corruption like the infamous London apartment deal, which cost the Vatican hundreds of millions of euros, investments in pharmaceutical companies that produced abortifacients and contraceptives, contrary to the Church’s moral doctrine, embezzlement by high-ranking cardinals and officials, and money laundering conducted by the Secretariat of State and the Vatican Bank.

Pell: a cardinal behind bars

As for Pell, only days after Milone went public with his revelations about his sudden departure from the Vatican, it was announced that Pell was to face charges for allegations of historic sexual abuse.

He voluntarily returned to his native Australia to face the charges, saying at the time: “I’m innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

READ: Judge sentences Cdl. Pell to six years in prison, says he ‘may’ die there

On May 12, 2019 the court deemed the cardinal to be guilty, sentencing him to six years in jail on five convictions of the sexual abuse of minors. The judge ruled that Pell could not be paroled for three years and eight months, telling the 77-year-old prelate he may die in jail, and describing the offences as “brazen and forceful” and “breathtakingly arrogant.”

READ: Cardinal Pell prohibited from celebrating Mass while he remains locked up in solitary confinement

Cdl. George Pell.

Pell spent 405 days in prison. He always denied the charges, however, which hinged on the uncorroborated testimony of one person, and in 2020 was unanimously acquitted by the Australian High Court. The court explained that the jury, “acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted.”

READ: Cdl. Pell unanimously acquitted of sex abuse charge by Australian High Court, will be freed

Speaking after his release, Pell stated that he believed his unjust imprisonment was linked to his attempted financial reforms in the Vatican. Asked about the possibility of such a link between his sentencing and his reforms, Pell responded: “Most of the senior people in Rome who are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they are.”

READ: Cardinal Pell: ‘Senior people in Rome’ believe Vatican officials linked to my imprisonment

Indeed, Becciu is reported to have been financially linked to Pell’s trial. In late 2020, an Italian paper argued that Becciu spent more than $800,000 to discredit Pell during his sexual abuse trial.

Later reports stated that a total of $1.7 billion (AUS $2.3 billion) was sent to Australia from the Vatican, between 2014 and 2020. No evidence has yet connected the $1.7 billion to Pell’s trial, but suspicions were nevertheless raised, particularly given that the Australian bishops reportedly had no knowledge of the money.

Following his acquittal and release, Pell described his jail term “a gift and a grace.” “God writes straight with crooked lines, and given that I was sentenced to jail, I do regard it as a gift and a grace,” Pell told reporters in December 2020.

READ: Cardinal Pell: My time in jail ‘was a gift and a grace’

“I’d have to hasten to add that I still regret that it happened,” he continued. “I wouldn’t have chosen it, but there I was and, please God, I did my Christian duty while I was in jail.”

Cardinal George Pell at the August 2022 Consistory of Cardinals.

In recent years, both before and after his time in jail, Pell continued his vocal stance on issues pertaining to the Catholic faith, notably opposing the heterodox proposals that have emerged from Francis’ various synods.

Less than a year ago, he called on the CDF to “intervene and pronounce judgement” on Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and Bishop Georg Bätzing, for their “wholesale and explicit rejection of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics.”

In the wake of his death, Pell was described by EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo as “a brilliant, much maligned churchman who was wrongly jailed- cleared his name- and still spread Faith.”

LifeSiteNews invites its readers to pray for the repose of Cardinal Pell’s soul.