George Pell is back in Rome for the first time since being acquitted on child sex abuse charges

George Pell is back in Rome, but it's not yet clear how long he'll stay there or what his agenda might involve.

George Pell arrives at his residence in Rome, Italy, 30 September 2020.

George Pell arrives at his residence in Rome, Italy, 30 September 2020. Source: ANSA

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.

It wasn't immediately clear how long Cardinal Pell would remain in the Vatican or what his agenda might involve.

Cardinal George Pell heckled on return to Rome

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 27 June, 2017, Pope Francis gave Cardinal 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.

Cardinal 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, Cardinal 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.

George Pell arrives at Rome's international airport in Fiumicino, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.
Source: AP

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.

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 Cardinal 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 Cardinal 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.

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Additional reporting by AAP.

Published 1 October 2020 at 7:37am