Cardinal George Pell Dies at 81

The Australian cardinal succumbed to a suspected heart attack following hip replacement surgery in Rome, according to his secretary.

Cardinal George Pell pictured at the Vatican in 2017
Cardinal George Pell pictured at the Vatican in 2017 (photo: Edward Pentin)

Cardinal George Pell has died in Rome this evening at the age of 81. 

The Australian cardinal had been admitted to Rome’s Salvator Mundi hospital, about one and a half miles from his Vatican residence, for routine hip replacement surgery on Tuesday afternoon. 

The operation was successful and he was in good spirits, chatting with hospital staff, but he later suffered a suspected cardiac arrest and died at 8.50pm, according to his personal secretary, Father Joseph Hamilton. An autopsy report is expected to give the precise cause of death.  

Pope Francis sent a message of condolence on Wednesday, saying he had “learned with sorrow” the news of Cardinal Pell’s passing and expressing his closeness to the cardinal’s brother David and other family members. 

The Pope said he recalled with “heartfelt gratitude” Cardinal Pell’s “consistent and committed witness, his dedication to the Gospel and the Church, and particularly his diligent cooperation with the Holy See in its recent economic reform, for which he laid the foundations with determination and wisdom.”

On his Facebook page, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said: “It is with deep sadness that I can confirm His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell, passed away in Rome.” 

“This news comes as a great shock to all of us,” he added. “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.”

Father Hamilton has confirmed that a funeral Mass will be offered in Rome, and he will be buried in St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney.

Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Pell the Vatican’s first prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014 in a move to help clear up Vatican finances after a series of highly publicized scandals.

But after making significant progress, his work was cut short in 2017 when he was charged with multiple counts of historical child sexual assault that allegedly had occurred when he was archbishop of Melbourne.  

Strenuously denying the charges, he returned to Australia to clear his name but was subsequently convicted and jailed for six years. He was later freed in April 2020 after Australia’s highest court unanimously overturned the conviction. 

He returned to live in Rome on Sept. 30, 2020, his first visit back to the city since his trial and imprisonment.

Cardinal Pell’s prison journal, written while he was in solitary confinement, is being published in three volumes. 

George Pell was born on June 8, 1941, in Ballarat, a town in Victoria, to an English-born Anglican father and a devout Catholic mother of Irish descent.

Cardinal Pell was appointed auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987 and archbishop of the archdiocese in 1996. In 2001 he was installed as the eighth archbishop of Sydney.  

In 2003, Pope St. John Paul II elevated him to cardinal and ten years later, Pope Francis appointed him a member of his “council of cardinals” advising him on Church reform. 

He participated in both the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI and the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis. In 2021, Cardinal Pell turned 80 years old, losing his eligibility to vote in a future papal conclave.

The cardinal had suffered from heart trouble for some time, and had a pacemaker fitted in 2010.

The story is still developing and will be updated as information becomes available.

AC Wimmer/CNA contributed to this report.