Cardinal Pell has spent more than a year in solitary confinement in his native Australia after a jury found him guilty in 2018 of assaulting two young choristers at Melbourne Cathedral when he was the city’s archbishop in the 1990s. An Australian High Court overturned his conviction in 2020.
Even after his acquittal, the cardinal remained a polarizing figure in Australia and the Church. To his critics, he was a symbol of the abuse crisis. To his supporters, he was a scapegoat targeted by enemies of the Church.
Cardinal Pell, who also served as Archbishop of Sydney, established one of the world’s first programs to compensate victims of child sexual abuse. But critics say he has overseen a culture of secrecy, using the program — which requires victims to waive their right to civil legal action — to silence them.
A high-profile Australian investigation known as A.J Royal Commissionbegan investigating pedophilia in the Catholic Church and other institutions in 2013. It found that the cardinal knew of child molestation by clergy in the 1970s, but did not take sufficient steps to address it.
The cardinal told the inquiry in 2016 that he did not know if the crimes of Gerald Ridsdale — a priest who was transferred from parish to parish by the church in the 1970s and 1980s, and later convicted on dozens of child sexual abuse charges — were. general knowledge.
“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” Cardinal Peel said said the investigation. “The suffering was, of course, real and I am very sorry for it, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils done by Ridsdal.”
Cardinal Pell gave evidence to the inquiry via video link from Rome after his lawyers said he was too ill to travel to Australia. Bell suffered from high blood pressure, heart disease, and cardiac dysfunction, and one of the doctors concluded that the long flight was dangerous to his health.
The Cardinal was a staunch conservative of the Church’s moral teachings, and was an ally of Benedict and Francis when they led the Church. He was canonized in the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2014 and accused of fixing his finances. His career effectively turned around when he returned to Australia in 2017 to defend himself against sexual assault allegations.
At trial, the prosecution relied on the evidence of a former choirboy, who was then in his 30s and had a young family. He reported the alleged abuse to police in 2015, after another former teen died of a drug overdose. The other choirboy never made public accusations against Cardinal Peel. (Prosecutors dropped a separate sexual assault case after the trial began.)
Cardinal Pell’s accuser, whose name has not been publicly released, said he respected the acquittal and accepted the outcome. He said it highlighted the difficulties in child sexual abuse cases to convince a criminal court that the crime occurred beyond all reasonable doubt.
“It is a very high standard to meet – a heavy burden,” he said in a statement at the time. “But the price we pay for tipping the system in favor of the accused is that many sexual crimes against children go unpunished.”