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Civil case against George Pell to go ahead amid mixed reaction to his sudden death

Lawyers representing the father of an alleged victim of George Pell say they will continue to pursue a civil case despite the Cardinal’s death.

Cardinal Pell, the former Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney, died in Rome at the age of 81 on Wednesday from heart complications following hip surgery.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had expressed the nation’s condolences to Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Wednesday morning, and added that the government would assist in returning the cleric’s body to Australia.

Cardinal Pell’s 2018 conviction for molesting two teenage choirboys in 1996 was quashed in a unanimous decision by the High Court in 2020.

A civil claim was later lodged on behalf of the father of a former altar boy, now deceased, who alleged he was sexually abused by Cardinal Pell.

Shine Lawyers chief legal officer Lisa Flynn said there was a “great deal of evidence” to pursue the case.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne is also listed as a defendant.

“The claim will continue against the church and whatever estate Pell has left behind,” said Ms Flynn in a statement.

“A civil trial likely would have provided the opportunity to cross examine Pell, and truly test his defence against these allegations.

“There is still a great deal of evidence for this claim to rely on, and the court will be asked in due course to make its ruling on that evidence.”

The father is suing Pell and the Catholic Church, claiming he suffered psychological injury and nervous shock over his son’s alleged sexual abuse by Cardinal Pell.

He said he suffered from chronic adjustment disorder and persistent complex bereavement disorder, with mixed anxiety and a depressed mood, court documents reveal.

The father also said he had lost money due to medical expenses and had lost his earning capacity.

The church tried to be excused from the trial, by arguing the man could not sue as he was not the direct victim. A judge dismissed this, allowing the civil trial to continue, but the case is on hold as the church is appealing.

It was alleged, that after a choir practice in 1996, Cardinal Pell had caught two altar boys drinking wine in the priest’s sacristy and had exposed himself and abused them.

Cardinal Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter, had described the claims as a “far-fetched fantasy”.

“Only a madman would attempt to rape boys in the priest’s sacristy immediately after Sunday solemn mass,” he told jurors.

400 days in jail

Pell became the highest ranking Catholic to be convicted of child sexual abuse before being acquitted.

For more than 400 days, Pell sat in a prison cell convicted of the sexual abuse of two young choirboys within the inner chambers of one of Melbourne’s most prominent churches.

The cardinal was convicted in December 2018 of five charges of child sexual abuse relating to allegations he raped a 13-year-old choirboy and molested another at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.

In April 2020 he was acquitted when Australia’s High Court overturned the verdict of a jury.

The High Court’s decision and his death haven’t changed public opinions of Cardinal Pell — a divisive figure to the end.

Cardinal George Pell divided opinions. Photo: AAP

‘Difficult day’

Mr Albanese referred to the sudden death of Cardinal Pell as a “difficult day” for many Australians, especially those of the Catholic faith.

The Prime Minister said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would assist in bringing Cardinal Pell’s body back to Australia for a burial service St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, after a funeral at the Vatican.

Mr Albanese, who is Catholic, declined to say whether he would attend the Sydney event, saying only that “further announcements will be made when they are finalised”.

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 in a statement.

“As an ecclesiastical and cultural conservative, he attracted praise and blame from all the expected quarters.

“In fact, he was a very pastoral priest who well understood the human stain and was more than capable of empathising with sinners while still counselling against sin.”

Mr Abbott said Cardinal Pell’s jailing after his conviction, which was dismissed by the High Court, was a “modern form of crucifixion, reputationally at least a kind of living death”.

“He strikes me as a saint for our times. Like everyone who knew him, I feel a deep sense of loss but am confident that his reputation will grow and grow and that he will become an inspiration for the ages.”

Former treasurer Joe Hockey said he was “immensely saddened” to hear of the unexpected death.

“He was a man of deep faith and great integrity. He was blessed with fortitude, courage, determination and intellect. He was proudly Australian,” Mr Hockey said.

Former senator Derryn Hinch and child protection advocate was more scathing of the Catholic leader.

“I wish he had lived for another 10 years of deserved public opprobrium,” Mr Hinch tweeted.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Kevin Andrews said the world had lost a “good and great man”.

“Despite his unjust travails, he remained optimistic and hope-filled.”

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