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He helped out at his family-run pub in Ballarat, the Cattleyards, and after high school, he signed a contract with a professional Australian Rules Football club before leaving to join the priesthood.

As a seminarian in the early 1960s, as one classmate put it, “George thought men had to be men and that pansies belonged in the garden.”

He went to Rome in 1963 to continue his studies, and then to Oxford for a doctorate in Church history. He said later that it was a “turbulent time,” and many of the conservative positions he later championed — his strong opposition to birth control and homosexuality, for example — seemed to stem from his own response to that era.

But when he came back and served as a priest in Ballarat, from 1971 to 1984, there was a more immediate issue at hand: priests were preying on the children of the diocese.

Mr. Collins, 48, one of the men who met with Cardinal Pell in Rome, said he was abused in Ballarat in the 1960s and 70s by four different men, three of them Catholic clergy.

In a city with a population of less than 80,000 at the time, dozens of children were abused by priests. It was hell. It was hidden.

“Ballarat was one of the worst affected towns with regard to church abuse,” said Professor Bouma.

“It’s not just men, it’s women as well,” said Peter Blenkiron, 54, another Ballarat victim who met with Cardinal Pell in Rome. “They were damaged as children and didn’t make it.”

Cardinal Pell later said that he had been too busy as a priest and educator to notice all that was happening. “The crimes committed against them by priests and brothers are profoundly evil and completely repugnant to me,” he said in 2015.


Pope Francis, left, addressed children in 2013 next to Cardinals (from left) George Pell, Sean Patrick O’Malley, Oswald Gracias, Reinhard Marx and Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga in Assisi, Italy. Credit Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Cardinal Pell’s lawyers — in response to the Royal Commission, which launched its investigation into sexual abuse at a range of Australian institutions in 2013 — said there was no evidence to show he had acted inappropriately during his time in the Ballarat Diocese.

And he continued to rise.

In 1996, he became Archbishop of Melbourne. There, he quickly became known as a sharp manager of church finances, and a proactive leader.

In October of that year, Cardinal Pell unveiled what became known as the “Melbourne Response” to the sexual abuse problem, which included a pamphlet with an apology and contact details for those seeking to file complaints.

It pledged modest payouts to victims of pedophile priests, capped at $50,000 ($38,000 USD), and warned that the church would “strenuously defend” its claims against those who decided to sue.

During his time in Melbourne, he forced more than a dozen priests who were accused of abuse to step down.

Soon after that, in 2002, a man came forward and said that Cardinal Pell, newly installed as Sydney’s archbishop, had molested him at a Catholic summer camp in 1961, when the man was 12 years old and Cardinal Pell was a seminarian.

It was the first and only public direct accusation against him, and he denied it.

A judge hired by the church investigated. The accuser had had several run-ins with the police, many involving driving under the influence of alcohol. The judge ruled that there was not enough certainty to move forward.

Cardinal Pell’s supporters said the ruling proved his innocence; others disagreed.

“He just couldn’t declare it proven,” said Mr. Marr, referring to the judge. “It was a really equivocal result. Anyone in Rome reading that document would surely have hesitated before making him a Cardinal.”

If Cardinal Pell seemed worried, it did not show. He continued to play a vocal role in public life, frequently appearing in the news media as an outspoken critic of liberal ideas like gay marriage.

This conservatism served him well both under Pope John Paul II, who made him a cardinal in 2003, and Pope Benedict, who worked with him in the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal office.

In Australia, Cardinal Pell’s Vatican status and conservative profile continued to insulate him. In 2004, Tony Abbott, a Catholic lawmaker who would go on to become Australia’s prime minister, said: “Cardinal Pell is one of the greatest churchmen that Australia has seen.”

This week, he echoed that sentiment with slightly more caution, declaring, “The George Pell I have known is a very fine man, indeed.”

It was only a few years ago when Cardinal Pell’s momentum seemed to shift, after victims and advocates accused the church of obstructing justice.

As reporters told their stories with regularity, the Australian government established the commission to look broadly at institutional responses to child sex abuse.

The investigators found abuses in a variety of faiths and organizations, but the conclusions about the Catholic Church were numerous and widespread. There were accusations against priests, brothers and other church workers at more than 1,000 church institutions from more than 4,400 alleged victims.

In Ballarat, the commission triggered a series of revived traumas, and new opportunities. Mr. Blenkiron, a former electrician, said he and other victims have spent much of the past few years trying to turn their experiences around.

Speaking at schools and elsewhere, they have tried to break down what Mr. Blenkiron described as a culture of secrecy and shame that helped keep the abuse hidden for so long.

He, Mr. Collins and many of the other victims who went to Rome last year said they still believed at the time that Cardinal Pell could help them. Pope Francis seemed to have faith in him.

“George Pell was a bit of an icon in Ballarat,” Mr. Collins said. “He’s a local boy made good, so there’s a tinge of sadness behind all of this.”