ROME — Three years after leaving for Australia to face sexual abuse accusations, and five months after that country’s highest court overturned his conviction on those charges, Cardinal George Pell was expected to return to the Vatican on Wednesday.
“We understand that he is due to arrive in Rome tomorrow,” said Chiara Porro, the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, adding that she had had no contact with the prelate or his office, so could not comment on the reasons for the trip.
On its home page, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney linked to an article in The Catholic Weekly, the diocesan newspaper, which reported that Cardinal Pell was returning “at the Vatican’s invitation” and that it was “believed that the invitation emanates from Pope Francis.”
A Vatican spokesman said on Tuesday that Cardinal Pell was not scheduled to meet with the pope.
The Australian cardinal’s return follows the unexpected ouster last week of his longtime Vatican rival, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, as the head of the department that creates saints. Cardinal Becciu said at a news conference on Friday that he had been fired by the pope over embezzlement allegations, but maintained that he was innocent.
Cardinal Pell had been one of the Vatican’s top power brokers before the accusations of sexual offenses derailed his career, having been handpicked by Pope Francis in 2014 as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a structure that was meant to simplify, coordinate and render more transparent the church’s vast economic and administrative affairs.
A few months after his appointment, Cardinal Pell published an essay in the British magazine Catholic Herald describing some of the challenges he faced, noting, for example, that some Vatican departments managed their finances “with an almost free hand” according to “long-established patterns.”
Cardinal Pell’s attempts at reining in, and reigning over, the Holy See’s complex financial affairs soon ruffled feathers. From 2014 to 2017, he repeatedly butted horns with Cardinal Becciu, for eight years the powerful chief of staff in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Cardinal Becciu left the secretariat to head the Vatican department that creates saints in 2018.
In 2017, Cardinal Pell returned to Australia where he went on trial on charges of sexually abusing two choirboys in 1996, an accusation he denied. He was convicted and sentenced in March 2019 to six years in prison. The sentence was upheld on appeal, and Cardinal Pell spent 13 months behind bars before Australia’s highest court overturned the decision in April. The court ruled that the jury should have entertained a doubt about his guilt.
At the news conference on Friday, Cardinal Becciu said that Pope Francis had been misled by Vatican prosecutors who accused him of nepotism and committing “acts of embezzlement.”
Cardinal Becciu also said that the pope had never raised the issue of a financially risky London real estate deal handled by the secretariat under his watch, which had been scrutinized by Vatican prosecutors last year.
The deal had also apparently fallen under the lens of Cardinal Pell. In an interview published in The Catholic Weekly in August, the Australian cardinal said that the Vatican had been “bedeviled over the years by inefficiency and corruption,” citing the London property deal as “an example of both, certainly an example of inefficiency at best.”
He added in the interview that he believed that “most of the crooks are out of the system,” though “you can never be quite sure.”
Cardinal Pell, 79, no longer has a role at the Vatican, and in an institution where the retirement age is 75, it is unlikely he will be assigned to a new post.
Last year, Francis appointed Reverend Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves as Cardinal Pell’s successor. In an interview with the new prefect, Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican’s director of communications, wrote that the pope had personally called on the Jesuit priest “to carry out a reform that aims at the economic transparency of the Holy See and an ever more efficient use of the goods and resources at the service of its evangelizing mission.”
In the August interview, Cardinal Pell said that his successor was “heading in the right direction, but that promise has got to be brought to fruit.”