Cardinal George Pell, the former chief financial officer of the Vatican and the most senior Roman Catholic leader to ever stand trial for child sexual abuse, died in Rome on Tuesday. He was 81.
The cause of death was believed to be complications from a hip replacement surgery.
“It is with deep sadness that I can confirm His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell, passed away in Rome in the early hours of this morning,” Anthony Fisher, the Archbishop of Sydney, said in a statement to The Guardian. “This news comes as a great shock to all of us.”
Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, was convicted in 2018 of molesting two choirboys in 1996, but that decision was overturned by Australia’s highest court two years later. The initial case rocked the nation, but media outlets were forbidden from reporting on it because of secret gag orders.
A panel of seven judges later ruled the conviction was unreasonable, saying the jury that convicted him on five counts had failed to take into account evidence that questioned his guilt.
Pell maintained his innocence throughout the trials and returned to the Vatican after he was released from prison in 2020.
The cardinal was at the center of Australia’s reckoning with sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Church. A five-year Royal Commission into decades of the church’s behavior found he knew decades earlier that other priests had abused children but failed to take action. Those revelations were released only after Pell was cleared of his own abuse charges as Australia has strict rules protecting information that could influence ongoing court cases.
Pell was born in Ballarat, Australia, in 1941. He rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church in rural Australia, beginning as a priest, then becoming archbishop of Melbourne and later archbishop of Sydney. He was elevated to cardinal in 2003 by Pope John Paul II and became the Vatican’s first finance chief in 2014, serving for five years.
He later served as an adviser to Pope Francis.