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World mourns Cardinal Pell as important church figure

Australian bishops react to news of passing of former Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy
A framed photograph showing Cardinal George Pell (left) with Pope Benedict XVI is seen on display at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne on Jan. 11, as people pay their respects following Pell's death

A framed photograph showing Cardinal George Pell (left) with Pope Benedict XVI is seen on display at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne on Jan. 11, as people pay their respects following Pell's death. (Photo: AFP)

Published: January 12, 2023 04:55 AM GMT
Updated: January 12, 2023 05:00 AM GMT

Cardinal George Pell, considered one of the most important figures in the contemporary church, is being remembered around the globe as a courageous leader, a fine priest and a man of great suffering.

"The church in Australia and around the world is deeply saddened at the sudden passing of Cardinal George Pell, the former archbishop of Sydney and of Melbourne," Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said in a statement, following the Jan. 10 death of Cardinal Pell due to complications from hip surgery. He was 81. 

"He will be remembered as a courageous leader who inspired so many clergy and lay faithful around the world to proclaim Christ crucified, risen and with us still," Archbishop Fisher said.

What the world will most certainly never forget is the trial Cardinal Pell went through and the more than 400 days he spent in jail after being convicted on five counts related to the abuse of two choir boys. 

In a decision handed down April 7, 2020, the Australian High Court overturned that conviction, concluding there was "a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof."

"The church has lost one of its greatest leaders, a man of fidelity and integrity who was a 'white martyr' -- a confessor who did not shed his blood but suffered greatly for the faith," George Weigel, a close friend of Cardinal Pell and a witness to his prison suffering, told OSV News.

"I knew I was innocent. And I knew the most important judgment is the judgment when I meet my Maker," Cardinal Pell told TVP, Polish Television, in 2021.

Archbishop Fisher wrote that Pell's "final years were marked by his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, but he bore this with grace and goodwill and gave us all an example of how to accept suffering with dignity and peace."

"His words of reconciliation with his detractors and concern for survivors increased in authenticity as he steadfastly and successfully maintained his innocence," the archbishop added.

Australia's former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a personal friend of Cardinal Pell, told Catholic Weekly in Sydney: "Australia has lost a great son and the church has lost a great leader" and he called the late cardinal Pell “a saint for our times.”

"The cardinal was a committed defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a staunch advocate for the virtues of Western civilization. As an ecclesiastical and cultural conservative, he attracted praise and blame from all the expected quarters."

Abbott said Cardinal Pell’s trial, imprisonment and exoneration from a conviction of child sexual abuse was "a modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death."

While he was in prison, Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking church official in history to go through such a process, kept a journal -- described as an account of the humility and greatness of a man unjustly tried and convicted.

"I thought it's a bit unusual for cardinals to be in jail, so a record would be interesting," he told TVP in 2021. "But I also thought, well, perhaps my writing might be a help to some people also when they are having difficulties."

In his new memoir, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former papal personal secretary to Pope Benedict XVI, said the late pope enjoyed having the volumes of the cardinal’s writings read to him.

As former archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell revolutionized the way sex abuse cases were handled. As early as 1996, when the global church -- both local bishops and the Vatican -- were slow in responding to the abuse crisis, then-Archbishop Pell set up a standard for how to report cases of clergy sexual abuse by establishing the Melbourne Response in 1996 in consultation with law enforcement and legal authorities in the state of Victoria.

While commonplace today, setting up such a transparent and public protocol in the mid-1990s, was considered revolutionary.

"I think in five years in Melbourne, 300 did something of that order, which is a lot. And the people were very surprised by the number, I was too, and they were scandalized, but people felt they could come forward in confidence. They felt there was a just procedure," Cardinal Pell told TVP.

As a man who would later be unjustly convicted, Cardinal Pell constantly urged that due process be followed in any case of sexual abuse allegations -- both for the good of the victims and the alleged perpetrators.

In 2017, Cardinal Pell took a leave of absence from his role as prefect of the Vatican’s new Council for the Economy – he was the first prefect, appointed to the post by Pope Francis in 2014. He had to return to Australia to face the accusations of child sexual abuse made against him. He staunchly professed his innocence throughout the proceedings that led to a Dec. 11, 2018, unanimous conviction on all five charges against him, his imprisonment and his eventual acquittal, in 2020.

Since the news of his death, church observers have noted that Cardinal Pell was greatly appreciated in all three contemporary papacies. The cardinal called St. John Paul II "the great '' and carried the Polish pope's legacy by organizing World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008. 

"He saw great promise in youth," Archbishop Fisher wrote in a statement, adding that the Sydney community as a whole "was uplifted by this colossal event and moved by the testimony it offered."

"The Aussie cardinal was tough, direct, vigorously conservative, warm, kind, down to earth, and a pioneer of Francis’s financial reform," posted Austen Ivereigh, biographer of Pope Francis, on Twitter.  

Cardinal Pell "fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel and worked to explain the teachings of the church,” Archbishop Fisher said. "He spoke the truth as he found it, however difficult or unpopular. He was also a man of prayer, of deep Christian faith and a loving shepherd to his flock in parishes, schools, hospitals and throughout his dioceses."

In commenting to OSV News about the death of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Pell said: "We’ve always got to be looking for ways in which we can better present the transcendent to the people who are praying in our churches, and get them to open their minds and hearts to the greatness and goodness of God.” 

The Jan. 5 funeral of Pope Benedict, whom Cardinal Pell called in conversation with OSV News "the greatest theologian who was ever pope," was the last public Mass the prelate attended. 

A requiem Mass for Cardinal Pell will be offered in Rome. A funeral Mass will take place in his native Australia. his prison suffering, told OSV News.

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