Acquitted Australian Cardinal Pell returns to Rome

Rome (AFP) –


Cardinal George Pell returned to Rome from Australia Wednesday for the first time since being jailed -- and then acquitted -- on child sex abuse charges.

The 79-year-old, wearing a face mask, briefly lifted his hand towards a crowd of waiting journalists at Rome's Fiumicino airport, but said nothing before climbing into a waiting car.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told AFP there was "currently no meeting planned" between the cleric and Pope Francis, who has his hands full dealing with a fresh scandal at the Vatican -- this one financial rather than sexual.

But experts on the workings of the tiny city state said a reunion between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the man he once appointed as his trusted anti-corruption tsar was a given.

"He will meet Francis. He'll do it as a free man," Italy's Repubblica daily said.

"It will be Pell's chance for a redress, after many in the Vatican rejoiced at his removal," it added.

At their last face to face meeting, on June 27, 2017, Francis gave Pell an extended period of leave to return to Australia and clear his name, amid accusations he molested two choirboys in the 1990s.

It took longer than either could have expected.

- 'Restore reputation' -

Pell was convicted in December 2018 of sexually abusing the choirboys when he was the archbishop of Melbourne.

He strenuously denied the charges and the High Court in Australia overturned his conviction in April this year after hearing his second appeal.

The former Vatican treasurer had in the meantime spent more than a year in prison.

A polarising figure in the Vatican, Pell is unlikely to get his job back as head of the Vatican's Secretariat of the Economy.

But "he will ask to have his honour restored," Vatican expert for the Fatto Quotidiano daily Franceso Antonio Grana said.

The cardinal's return to Rome comes just a few days after a known Vatican rival was ousted.

Influential Italian cardinal Angelo Becciu was forced to resign by the pope last week following accusations of embezzlement and nepotism.

It was not immediately clear whether the timing of Pell's return was significant, or whether he plans to stay at the Vatican.

He had told journalists in Australia shortly after his release from prison that he would at some point return to Rome to pack up his apartment.

A Pell aide told AFP his trip to Rome was a "private visit".

Under current coronavirus travel restrictions, Australians are barred from leaving the country except for official business or compassionate personal reasons.

It was not known on what condition Pell was granted an exemption.

The cardinal is still facing a civil suit brought by the father of one choirboy after the latter died in 2014.

A report released in May after a top-level Australian inquiry said Pell was aware of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Australia as far back as the 1970s and failed to seek the removal of accused priests.