Australia’s most senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, is being mourned by the Catholic community around Australia.
He died suddenly in Rome on Tuesday (January 10) at the age of 81.
His passing was due to complications from hip surgery.
The cardinal had reportedly suffered from heart trouble for years and had a pacemaker fitted in 2010.
Vatican correspondent Colm Flynn who was among the first to report his passing, interviewed Cardinal Pell several days ago about the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Mr. Flynn told Melbourne radio station 3AW: “Cardinal Pell was in good form. He was lively. We’d arranged to meet on my return to Rome.”
The cardinal had just written a thoughtful tribute to Benedict for The Australian, concluding: “He was a good pope, not a great pope, but neither a failure.”
“The hopes and bright expectations at his election were not all realised, and both his resignation and long years in retirement were surprises,” the cardinal reflected.
Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli posted on social media: “Cardinal Pell was a very significant and influential Church leader, both in Australia and internationally, deeply committed to Christian discipleship.”
“Let our prayers go out to the God of Jesus Christ, whom Cardinal Pell wholeheartedly believed in and followed, that he may be welcomed into eternal life,” he added.
Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher posted: “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.”
Former prime minister Tony Abbott said Australia had lost a great son and the Church had lost a great leader.
“The Cardinal was a committed defender of Catholic orthodoxy and a staunch advocate for the virtues of western civilisation,” Mr Abbott said.
“As an ecclesiastical and cultural conservative, he attracted praise and blame from all the expected quarters.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said: “For many people, particularly of the Catholic faith, this will be a difficult day and I express my condolences to all those who are mourning today.”
Victoria’s Minister For Tourism, Sport and Special Events Steve Dimopoulos said it would be a very difficult day for Cardinal Pell’s family and loved ones.
He added it would “also be a very difficult day for survivors and victims of child sexual abuse and their families.”
Cardinal George Pell was the third most powerful man in the Vatican as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy before he left Rome in 2017 to stand trial in Melbourne for child sexual abuse offences.
In 2018 he was convicted of molesting two teenage choirboys in the sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.
The Cardinal always maintained his innocence and in 2020 his convictions were quashed in a unanimous decision by the High Court.
George Pell was born in Ballarat where he later worked as a director of the city’s Aquinas campus after being ordained as a priest.
He became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and within weeks established one of the first formal church processes in the world for dealing with child sexual abuse.
The Australian reports The Melbourne Response was described by victim support group Broken Rites as “the best of a bad lot’’.
The Guardian reports “it was hailed by supporters as evidence of Pell’s willingness to tackle the stain on the church’s reputation but also criticised for capping compensation payouts and generally lacking compassion for survivors.”
Five years later George Pell was appointed Archbishop of Sydney and made a cardinal in 2003.
When he appeared before a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child abuse in 2013, he acknowledged his Church had covered up the “foul crime” and sometimes placed priests above the law.
After his convictions were quashed in 2020, Pope Francis tweeted: “We’ve been witnessing the persecution that Jesus underwent and how He was judged ferociously, even though He was innocent.”
After a Vatican funeral a service is expected to be held for Cardinal Pell at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney where he will be laid to rest.
Its bells tolled 81 times on Wednesday morning in honour of every one of the cardinal’s years.