By Philip Pullella and Sonali Paul
ROME (Reuters) -Australian Cardinal George Pell, a leading Roman Catholic conservative and former top Vatican official who was acquitted in 2020 of sexual abuse accusations, died on Tuesday at the age of 81, his private secretary said.
Fr. Joseph Hamilton told Reuters Pell died in a Rome hospital on Tuesday night. Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne said Pell died from heart complications after hip surgery.
An Australian appeals court ruling in 2020 quashed convictions that Pell sexually assaulted two choir boys in the 1990s.
The ruling allowed Pell to walk free after 13 months in prison, ending the case of the most senior figure accused in the global scandal of historical sex abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, was called by Pope Francis in 2014 to serve as Vatican economy minister, a post he held until taking a leave of absence in 2017 to return to Australia to face the charges.
At the Vatican, he encountered much resistance from the old Italian guard to reforms he wanted to enact. In an interview with Reuters last July, Pope Francis praised Pell as "the genius" who had insisted on an overarching method to control money flows and combat corruption.
Even before the sexual assault accusations, Pell was a polarising figure in the two decades that he dominated the Australian Catholic hierarchy, revered by conservative Catholics but scorned by liberals for his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and women's ordination.
He had been living in Rome since his acquittal and had several meetings with Pope Francis. Pell often attended the pontiff's Masses and Francis praised him publicly after his return.
On the day of Pell's acquittal in 2020, Francis offered his morning Mass for all those who suffer from unjust sentences, which he compared to the persecution of Jesus.
After his return to Rome, Pell became a familiar face around the Vatican area even though he was retired. His home became a focal point for conservatives preparing their platform for the eventual election of Francis's successor.
He was a close friend of former Pope Benedict, who died last month. But he disagreed with Benedict's decision to continuing wearing white, saying it had confused the faithful. In an interview with Reuters after his return to Rome, he said the Church needed rules on the role of popes who retire.
HIGH PROFILE TRIALS
In May 2018, Pell was committed to stand trial on multiple historical sexual offence charges relating to alleged incidents at a pool in his hometown of Ballarat in the 1970s and at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s.
The so-called swimmers' case was dropped after a judge did not allow certain evidence.
Pell, who denied the allegations, did not take the stand at two trials, the first of which ended with a hung jury.
At the re-trial, a jury unanimously convicted him on five charges of assaulting two teenage choirboys at the cathedral when he was archbishop of Melbourne and he was sentenced to six years in jail.
He lost his first appeal and was in solitary confinement for 404 days until Australia's seven High Court judges unanimously overturned his conviction, saying it was not proven beyond reasonable doubt.
"Look, it was bad, it wasn't like a holiday, but I don’t want to exaggerate how difficult that was. But there were many dark moments," Pell told Reuters of his jail time.
The high-profile case was one of the Australia's most divisive and some media organisations went so far as to breach a court suppression order barring coverage of the trial.
Clare Leaney, CEO of In Good Faith Foundation which works for survivors of institutional abuse, said for many survivors, Pell was a symbol of a system that put the interests of the Catholic Church above the interest and safety of individuals.
"As a result of this news, we anticipate a spike in individuals coming forward to disclose their experiences of institutional abuse for the first time."
Former Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia had lost a great son and the Church had lost a great leader.
"His incarceration on charges that the High Court ultimately scathingly dismissed was a modern form of crucifixion; reputationally at least a kind of living death," Abbott said on Twitter. "His prison journals should become a classic: a fine man wrestling with a cruel fate and trying to make sense of the unfairness of suffering."
GOLD MINER'S SON
Shine Lawyers said it would continue a civil claim against the church and Pell’s estate on behalf of the father of a former altar boy who alleged he was sexually abused by Pell.
The son of an Anglican gold miner and a devout Irish Catholic mother, Pell was talented both academically and at sports. At 18, he landed a contract to play professional Australian Rules football and played in the reserves for a club, but later chose to enter the seminary.
He went on to earn a doctorate in church history from Oxford and then became a parish priest in Ballarat.
A burly and imposing figure at 6 ft 3 inches (1.9 metres), Pell rose to prominence in the mid-1990s first as archbishop of Melbourne, then archbishop of Sydney in 2001.
Through the 1990s, the church increasingly came under attack for protecting priests and other church personnel who had committed sexual offences and for failing to support victims.
Pell took pride in having set up one of the world's first schemes to compensate victims of child sexual abuse in Melbourne.
Critics, however, later told a government-appointed inquiry the scheme was designed to persuade victims not to pursue legal action.
The wide-ranging inquiry found the church and other institutions had repeatedly failed to keep children safe with cultures of secrecy and cover-ups. It also found that Pell was aware of child sex abuse by at least two priests in the 1970s and 1980s and had failed to take steps to get them removed.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Sonali Paul in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Kirsty Needham and Lewis Jackson in Sydney; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez)