Pope meets acquitted Australian cardinal Pell

Vatican City (AFP) –

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Pope Francis met Monday with Australian Cardinal George Pell, who returned to Rome last month for the first time since being jailed -- and then acquitted -- on child sex abuse charges.

The Argentine pontiff, a fierce defender of the presumption of innocence, held a private audience with Pell, the Vatican said, without providing any further details.

But while a reunion between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the man he once appointed as his trusted anti-corruption tsar had been expected, it was not clear that Pell is to be entrusted with a new Vatican role.

Senior officials said he had not been summoned back by Francis, but had returned on his own volition.

"It is now a given that this meeting will be crucial and in some senses dramatic," Franca Giansoldati, Vaticanist for Italy's Messaggero daily said when the news of the private audience broke.

The cardinal had been given extended leave in 2017 to return to Australia and clear his name of accusations he molested two choirboys in the 1990s.

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.

- 'Look him in the eye' -

Pell, 79, returned to Rome on September 30.

The ex-economy minister had told priest friends "he could not wait to look the pope in the eye," Giansoldati wrote.

"That obscure phrase hid the bitterness of a cardinal who had been unable to count -- during that terrible time -- on a word of comfort, of support, of friendship from the pope," she added.

Although he was supposed to observe a 14-day isolation period, the Australian "prince of the church" was photographed recently at a cafe terrace near the Vatican.

The cardinal is still facing a civil suit brought by the father of one choirboy who 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.

His return to return came just a few days after a known Vatican rival was ousted. Influential Italian cardinal Angelo Becciu was forced to resign by the pope following accusations of embezzlement and nepotism.

It was not immediately clear whether the timing of Pell's return was significant, but the Australian had sent the pope a message congratulating him on ousting Becciu.

The Corriere della Sera, Italy's best-selling daily, said recently an investigation at the Vatican had unearthed suspect money transfers which allegedly pointed to Becciu being behind a plot to smear Pell.

It said that Becciu had transferred 700,000 euros to Australia to pay for witnesses against Pell -- a charge Becciu has vehemently denied. An anonymous witness in Australia also told local media the allegation was false.