Australian Cardinal George Pell celebrates the opening Mass of World Youth Day in Sydney July 15, 2008. Cardinal Pell, former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and archbishop of Sydney, died Jan. 10, 2023. He was 81. OSV News photo/Daniel Munoz, Reuters

Australian Cardinal Pell dies at 81

By  Julie Asher, OSV News
  • January 11, 2023

Australian Cardinal George Pell, former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and archbishop of Sydney and of Melbourne, died Jan. 10 in Rome. He was 81. 

Sources told OSV News that Cardinal Pell went in for hip replacement surgery Jan. 10 and died of cardiac arrest following complications of the surgery.

Beginning at age 77, Cardinal Pell spent more than 400 days 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."

In reaction to the death of Cardinal Pell, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP, of Sydney posted on Facebook: "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. 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."

"Cardinal Pell provided strong and clear leadership within the Catholic Church in Australia, as Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney and as a member of the Bishops Conference for more than 25 years," said Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, SDB, of Perth, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. "Cardinal Pell’s impact on the life of the Church in Australia and around the world will continue to be felt for many years. As we remember him and reflect on his legacy, I invite all Catholics and other people of goodwill to join in praying for Cardinal Pell, a man of deep and abiding faith, and for the repose of his soul."

According to Archbishop Fisher, who celebrated Mass for the deceased cardinal on Jan. 11 at St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, a requiem Mass will take place at St. Peter's at the Vatican in the coming days. A funeral Mass will then be held at St. Mary's, where he will be buried in the crypt.

George Pell was born June 8, 1941, in Ballarat, Australia, to George Arthur and Margaret Lillian Pell. His father was a nonpracticing Anglica,; his mother a devout Catholic of Irish descent.

Pell attended St. Patrick's College in Ballarat from 1956 to 1959, where he was a star player for the football team. After college, he signed with what is now the Australian Football League but then felt called to the priesthood, so began his theological studies in 1960 at Corpus Christi College regional seminary.

In 1963, Pell continued his studies at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, and graduated with a licentiate in theology in 1967. During his final year of studies, he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ballarat Dec. 16, 1966, at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Then-Fr. Pell was appointed auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Australia, in 1987 and ordained May 21. On July 16, 1996, he was named archbishop of Melbourne, and his installation took place one month later. On March 26, 2001, Archbishop Pell was appointed archbishop of Sydney, and his installation took place on May 10, 2001.

In June 2002, Archbishop Pell stepped aside from his duties when he was accused, for the first time, of sexual abuse of a minor. A Church-based investigation could not find enough evidence to corroborate the accusation, which dated back to 1961.

At an Oct. 21, 2003, consistory, Archbishop Pell was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Pell was a member of various curial offices over the course of his long career, including the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. In 2002, he was named president of Vox Clara, the committee that advises Divine Worship and the Sacraments on liturgical translations in English. He was also a consulter for the Pontifical Council for the Family. He served as a member of the governing committee of the International Catholic Migration Commission, and a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. In 2012, he was appointed to the Congregation for Bishops.

He hosted Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney for World Youth Day in 2008.

He was appointed by Pope Francis as the inaugural prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a role that he technically held from 2014-2019. In an interview during a media tour of the United States in December 2021, Cardinal Pell spoke to OSV about how the secretariat had helped bring transparency to Vatican finances.

"We were able to introduce the methodology and accounting procedures used right throughout the business world — certainly throughout the Western world. So, it means now we know where the Vatican is financially," he said. 

Still, he added, the Vatican continues to face financial pressures “unless they can really get their act together.” 

"There will be a deficit of hundreds of millions in the (Vatican) pension fund. It’s quite a grave challenge."

In 2017, Cardinal Pell took a leave of absence from his role as prefect to return to Australia to face accusations of historical child sexual abuse. He staunchly professed his innocence throughout the proceedings that led to a Dec. 11, 2018, unanimous conviction on all five charges against him. Two days later, Pope Francis removed him from his inner circle of cardinals.

On March 13, 2019, Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months. After 13 months of incarceration, he was released in April 2020 following his second appeal.

While in prison — eight months of which were spent in solitary confinement — Cardinal Pell authored a three-volume Prison Journal, the first volume of which was published by Ignatius Press in 2020.

Cardinal Pell gave one of his last on-the-record interviews to OSV News on Dec. 31, 2022, in which he commented on the death of Pope Benedict XVI on that same day.

The world lost "a wonderful man. A very kind man," Cardinal Pell said. 

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.