Cardinal’s legacy in Vatican City gave him influence and enemies

His status in Rome gave him great international influence, but made him powerful enemies as he tried to find out how much money the Secretariat of State had in its portfolio of assets, what its investments were, and what it was doing with the tens of millions of dollars in donations to the Pope from the believers.

After years of a tug-of-war between Pell and those who managed the purses, he was unable to enforce international accounting and auditing standards – thwarted by his nemesis, Italian cardinal and then Secretary of State Angelo Becciu.

Former Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu (left) and Cardinal George Pell.

Former Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu (left) and Cardinal George Pell. Credit:AP

However, his suspicions and reforms in the Vatican were later confirmed. Becciu was sacked in 2020 after a scandal surrounding a shady property deal in London lost €350 million to the Vatican. An investigation also revealed that the Vatican paid tens of millions of euros in donations to Italian intermediaries to manage the business.

Pell’s proposed church financial transparency legislation was reintroduced. “I underestimated the ingenuity and resilience of those opposed to reform,” Pell said in September 2021, adding, “They didn’t like change, they didn’t understand what was being proposed.”

Becciu is still facing a Vatican tribunal on alleged financial crimes, including abuse of office, embezzlement and conspiracy.

“I never thought it would turn out to be as Technicolor as it proved,” Pell said said about the scandal. “I didn’t know there was so much crime involved.”

Then Archbishop George Pell at St Stephens Cathedral, Brisbane, in 2002.

Then Archbishop George Pell at St Stephens Cathedral, Brisbane, in 2002.Credit:Heide Missen

Pell stepped down from his Vatican duties in 2017 in response to allegations of historic sexual abuse in Australia. His 2018 conviction on five counts of sexually abusing two boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s was overturned, but not before he served 404 days in prison.

He had testified three times before Australia’s Royal Commission on institutional responses to child sexual abuse between 2014 and 2016.

Following his acquittal by the full bench of the Supreme Court in 2020, he returned to Rome and enjoyed a well-received papal audience and regular attendance at Vatican events.

Francis thanked Pell for his “testimony” and praised his work in the business field.

George Pell arrives at Melbourne Magistrates' Court in 2017 to face historic sexual assault charges. After a first jury could not reach a verdict, a second convicted him. He was acquitted on appeal in 2020.

George Pell arrives at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in 2017 to face historic sexual assault charges. After a first jury could not reach a verdict, a second convicted him. He was acquitted on appeal in 2020.Credit:Jason South

“It was Pell who drew the outlines of how we might move forward,” the pope said in a pre-Christmas interview with Mediaset that year. “He’s a great man and we owe him so much.”

Even some of his harshest critics within the church – and there were many, both in Australia and internationally – believed in his innocence.

“Cardinal Pell and I had our differences, to say the least,” said Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and law professor at the Australian Catholic University in 2021.

But there is “no doubt” that Pell was innocent and “made a scapegoat,” he said.

“I am convinced that the case has not helped honest complainants; it did not help the victims and their supporters.”

Frank and outspoken, Pell was viewed as a bully in some quarters and once admitted in a television interview to having an impressive temper that he “almost never” displayed.

His pursuit of Becciu lasted well into last year. In May, Pell accused Becciu of providing incomplete information in his testimony and frustrating transparency efforts. He accused Becciu of using his previous role as chief papal advisor to block audits of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s finances and to intimidate, harass and fire the auditors themselves.

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He also criticized Beccius’ record quest for financial transparency, namely paying $1.6 million to the Australian branch of Neustar, a technology company that provides internet analytics and also offers global communications services and internet domain names.

Supporters frequently voiced public suspicion that Becciu was involved in the allegations against Pell.

After his acquittal, Pell Becciu suggested orchestrating the allegations against him in 2017 to halt his attempts at reform. He said at the time there was “some evidence, but no evidence” that individuals within the Vatican were conspiring to destroy him.

Becciu has denied ever using the money to influence Pell’s court proceedings.

Pell didn’t live to see the end of the Vatican scandal, but he will eventually return to Sydney.

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Callan Tansill

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