By David Estcourt and Georgina Mitchell
The Vatican plans to hold a Requiem Mass to commemorate Cardinal George Pell, who died of cardiac arrest following hip replacement surgery in Rome on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a civil case over historic child sexual abuse claims will continue against the estate of Australia’s most prominent Catholic cleric, who died at Salvator Mundi hospital at the age of 81, just days after he attended the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI.
Cardinal Pell spent his later years adamantly defending claims he sexually abused two choirboys in the sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral while he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He maintained his innocence and his convictions in Victorian courts were quashed in a unanimous decision by the High Court in 2020.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton used Pell’s death to attack the Victorian Andrews government over what he labelled a “modern-day political persecution” that had led to Pell being imprisoned for 405 days for charges that were ultimately overturned.
“The fact he spent a year in prison for a conviction that the High Court of Australia unanimously quashed should provide some cause for reflection for the Victorian Labor government and its institutions,” Dutton said in a statement.
While Andrews has not publicly commented, Victorian Tourism Minister Steve Dimopoulos said his thoughts were with victims and survivors of abuse. “Today would be a very difficult day for the cardinal’s family and loved ones,” he said. “But also a very difficult day for survivors and victims of child sexual abuse and their families.”
Pell spent the final year of his life contesting a lawsuit brought by the father of one of the choirboys, who was in his 30s when he died from a heroin overdose in 2014 and never made direct allegations against Pell.
Shine Lawyers’ chief legal officer Lisa Flynn confirmed that litigation brought on behalf of the father of the boy, referred to in court as RWQ, would continue against the church and his estate.
“A civil trial likely would have provided the opportunity to cross-examine Pell, and truly test his defence against these allegations.”
The criminal allegations and case against Pell effectively ended his tenure in the senior ranks of the church. Since then, he had been splitting his time between Sydney and the Vatican, the capital of Catholic worship.
Originally from Ballarat, Victoria, Pell was a towering figure in the Catholic Church in Australia and internationally, and was known as a staunch defender of Christian conservatism. He served as archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney and rose to become the treasurer of the Vatican in Rome.
In Melbourne on Wednesday, bells rang out at St Patrick’s Cathedral for 30 minutes from noon to mark Pell’s death, while flags in the forecourt flew at half-mast. It was the same cathedral at which Victorian prosecutors alleged the abuse took place.
In Sydney, hundreds of parishioners packed St Mary’s Cathedral on Wednesday afternoon to hear Mass from Anthony Fisher, the archbishop of Sydney, dedicated to the cardinal.
Fisher said a Requiem will be held at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican before Pell’s body is brought to Sydney for a funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral, where he served as archbishop for 13 years. His body will then be buried in the crypt.
Fisher said Pell had provided strong and clear leadership and it would be for historians to assess his considerable and long-lasting impact on the church.
The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, remembered Pell as a great churchman who reformed religious education in schools and improved the financial position of the Melbourne archdiocese.
“He, over many years, has been a forthright defender of the faith; a great gospel man,” Comensoli said outside of St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne.
Pell’s brother David said he was “terribly saddened” by the death.
“I don’t think he deserved what he got. He was better appreciated overseas than he was here, particularly in Melbourne,” he told the Herald Sun.
Pell served as the first prefect for the Economy of the Holy See for five years, from 2014 to 2019. It was the highest position ever held by an Australian in the Catholic Church and is considered the third most important position in the Vatican.
He was known for his strident defence of conservative Catholic principles and for his role in sculpting modern Catholicism in Australia over the past three decades.
Sources from the Archdiocese in Sydney said they were unsure whether a new cardinal would be appointed from among the Australian clergy. The replacement of a cardinal is a discretion exercised by Pope Francis and the Vatican. Recently, the pontiff has appointed cardinals from smaller Catholic countries.
Chrissie Foster, a prominent critic of Pell’s Melbourne Response, whose two daughters were sexually abused by a Catholic priest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday that Pell’s management of the sexual abuse crisis that gripped the church had caused additional suffering to victims.
“Pell’s treatment of childhood clergy sexual abuse victims has caused much pain and heartbreak,” she said. “He has played a managerial role in an organisation which has a long history of child rape.”
Cardinal George Pell: Life and times of ‘the ambitious Australian bulldog’
Following a growing awareness and acknowledgment of child sexual abuse and offences by clergy and other church personnel in Australia, Pell instructed the archdiocesan lawyers to put together the scheme for responding to claims, which, in October 1996, became the Melbourne Response.
The response protocol promised damages to the victims of paedophile priests but capped payments at $50,000.
Michael Magazanik, whose firm Rightside Legal has won record settlements for victims of child sexual abuse, criticised the church’s veneration of the cleric.
“The Olympian hypocrisy and double standards of the church hierarchy are on full display: an outpouring of love for a man who at the very least turned a blind eye to massive child abuse, dreamt up a legal scheme which ripped off abuse survivors, and personally seemed incapable of empathy with victims,” he said.
Pell’s former lawyer Richard Leder told this masthead that despite what people might think of some of his decisions, the cardinal should be admired for his dedication and for his commitment to values he believed in.
“We worked together to try and address abhorrent failures of the church in the past, and hopefully people will look back and acknowledge the good work that was done.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called Archbishop Fisher to express his condolences, and said that the government is providing assistance to ensure Pell is brought back to Australia for a memorial.
“For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today.”
Top of page picture: Cardinal George Pell (left) meeting Pope Benedict XVI. Report from the Sydney Morning Herald