He was the Vatican’s top finance minister before he left in 2017 to stand trial in Australia for child abuse offences. In 2018 Pell was convicted of molesting two teenage choirboys in the sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral while he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, but always maintained his innocence and his convictions were quashed in a unanimous decision by the high court in 2020.
Only days before his death, he attended the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI.
The archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, confirmed Pell’s death.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Pell was born in Ballarat 1941 and was ordained in 1966, at the age of 25. He became a bishop in 1987 and went on to become cardinal in 2003, serving as archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
He is well known for setting up the Melbourne Response – the archdiocese’s much-criticised system for responding to claims of clergy abuse – in 1996, while archbishop of Melbourne.
He served as the first prefect for the Economy of the Holy See for five years, between 2014 and 2019. The position is regarded as the third most senior in the Vatican. It was the highest position held by an Australian in the Catholic hierarchy.
An Australian royal commission into child abuse found in 2020 that it was “implausible” Pell hadn’t been told why Gerald Ridsdale, a notorious paedophile priest, was being moved from parish to parish in Ballarat in the 1970s.
Pell had always insisted he had heard no rumours about Ridsdale and said he was “surprised” by the royal commission’s findings, which he said were not supported by evidence.
The royal commission also found that Pell should have advised his superiors to remove paedophile priest Peter Searson in 1989, after a group of parents complained about his conduct.
“We found that he should have advised the archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so,” the commission said.
Pell conceded that he should have been more “pushy” about Searson’s removal.
The royal commission also heard and accepted evidence that a man named Timothy Green tried to bring concerns about paedophile brother Edward “Ted” Dowlan to Pell in 1974. The commission found Pell said words to the effect of “don’t be ridiculous”, before walking away.
The archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, said on Wednesday morning: “It is with great sadness that I have learned that Cardinal George Pell, the seventh Archbishop of Melbourne, has died overnight from heart complications after hip surgery in Rome, Italy.
“Cardinal Pell was a very significant and influential Church leader, both in Australia and internationally, deeply committed to Christian discipleship.
“Cardinal Pell led the local Church of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001 with strong leadership in the Catholic faith and with good governance, before being transferred to Sydney and then to Rome.”
Experts have described Pell as “one of the most conservative figures of his generation” and a powerful conservative voice within the church.
Pell took hardline stances on same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, and the church’s attitude towards homosexuality.
In 2012, he described same-sex marriage as a “grave injustice” to children and pleaded with the Australian government not to legalise it.
Last year, he called for the Vatican’s doctrine office to intervene and reprimand two leading European Catholics who wanted wholesale changes in Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
Pell was heavily criticised in 2002 for suggesting abortion was a “worse moral scandal” than Catholic clergy abuse of young people.
Pell was also strongly opposed to contraception, describing any Catholic support for it as “heresy” and warning that the pill had created a “contraceptive” mentality with “evil consequences” for the world.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, archbishop Timothy Costelloe, issued a statement praising Pell’s “strong and clear leadership” for the Catholic church in Australia.
“His many strengths were widely recognised, both in Australia and around the world, as his Vatican appointments as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and as a member of the Council of Cardinals, an advisory group to Pope Francis, testify,” he said.
“Cardinal Pell’s impact on the life of the Church in Australia and around the world will continue to be felt for many years.”