Cardinal George Pell did not need to apply for a travel exemption to leave Australia because he is travelling to Rome for official Vatican government business.
The news that Pell was flying from Sydney to Rome on Tuesday generated criticism online with people questioning why the Australian government – which has banned its citizens from leaving the country as a Covid-19 precaution – granted him an exemption.
When Guardian Australia contacted the Australian Border Force to clarify on what grounds Pell was able to leave the country, a spokeswoman said the department did not comment on individual cases.
But the home affairs department makes clear there are six categories of people who are automatically exempt from the general ban and don’t need to seek special permission to leave Australia. They include anyone “travelling on official government business”.
Guardian Australia understands Pell is travelling to Rome for reasons related to official Vatican government business so did not need an exemption.
The Catholic News Agency reported on Monday that Pell was set to fly to Rome on Tuesday, some five months after a damning report was delivered by Australia’s child sexual abuse royal commission finding he was aware of children being sexually abused within the the Catholic church but failed to adequately act to prevent or stop it.
Responding to the report, Australians on Twitter noted that Pell was able to travel at a time when the federal government policy was to stop most citizens leaving the country.
One Twitter user noted Pell was leaving the country when tens of thousands of Australians remain stranded overseas due to the government’s strict caps on international arrivals, while another likened his ability to leave Australia to the exemption Tony Abbott was granted in August.
The ABF was criticised earlier in the pandemic for a backlog in processing exit exemption applications that meant some Australians missed the chance to farewell dying relatives.
However, it has since sped up average processing times for exemption applications, with about 18,000 Australians leaving the country in August 2020 with a valid exemption.
Exemptions for outbound travel are granted to Australians only for a specified list of reasons, including provisions for essential workers and compassionate travel. Non-citizens and temporary visa holders do not need an exemption to leave.
The six classes of Australian citizens and permanent residents who do not need to apply for a travel exemption include people who are ordinarily resident in another country; airline and maritime crews; New Zealand citizens holding a subclass 444 visa; people engaged in the day-to-day conduct of outbound freight; essential workers at Australian offshore facilities; and those, like Pell, travelling on official government business.
Pell was previously the third most senior Catholic in the world when he was prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, effectively the financial controller of the church.
While he was not removed from this position after returning to Australia in 2017 to face child sexual abuses, his term was not renewed after it expired in February 2019. Pell stood aside from the role while he faced the charges against him.
The cardinal – who was initially convicted of child sexual abuse and spent 13 months in Barwon prison in Victoria – was acquitted in April and has since been living in Sydney.
His friend, News Corp Australia columnist Andrew Bolt, has written that Pell is returning to Rome “ostensibly to empty his Vatican apartment”.