Hundreds gather for Cardinal George Pell’s funeral in Sydney


SYDNEY — Mourners, as well as protesters with rainbow flags, gathered at a Sydney cathedral on Thursday for the funeral and funeral of polarizing Cardinal George Pell, who was once the longest-serving Catholic to be convicted of sex abuse.

Pell, who died last month aged 81, served more than a year in prison before his convictions were overturned in 2020.

Pell, once the third most senior minister at the Vatican, returned to Australia in 2017 to address child abuse allegations made by multiple complainants over decades in his home state of Victoria. Only allegations that he had abused two choirboys in his early months as Archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s led to convictions. He spent 404 days in mostly solitary confinement before being released. But his Vatican career was over by that point.

The strictly conservative church leader is buried after a funeral service in the crypt of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

There was a heavy police presence at the cathedral in central Sydney as mourners arrived hours before the funeral service.

Police wanted to maintain a separation between mourners and protesters who gathered across the street from the cathedral in Hyde Park.

Former Conservative Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott were expected to be among the mourners at the cathedral, while current centre-left Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was not expected.

Tensions flared briefly early Thursday when several mourners attempted to remove ribbons attached to the cathedral fence symbolizing victims of clergy sex abuse.

Theresa Guzzo, a mourner who flew in from New Zealand to attend the service, said she opposed the presence of protesters. She felt Pell had become the “scapegoat” for hostility towards the Church.

“It’s just inappropriate for me to protest at the funeral where we say goodbye to him, no matter what you believe,” Guzzo said.

She said she initially believed “strongly” in the allegations of child molestation against Pell but stopped doing so after he was acquitted by the High Court and she reviewed the evidence.

Sydney-based gay rights group Community Action for Rainbow Rights had called on people to join what it calls “Pell go to Hell!” Protest in front of the cathedral.

Pell had angered gay activists with views including: “Gay activity is a much greater health risk than smoking.”

Pell was Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2014, when Pope Francis appointed him first prefect of the newly created Economic Secretariat tasked with reforming the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances.

Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, when he was accused of sexually abusing two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral. He was convicted and acquitted after a second appeal.

As leader of the church in Melbourne and later Sydney, Pell repeatedly refused to give communion to gay activists who wore rainbow-colored sashes.

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and important consequences follow,” Pell told a St Mary’s congregation in 2002 after he first refused communion to a gay activist in Sydney.

Pell was also a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church was held accountable for past child sexual abuse.

A 2017 national inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse found that Pell was aware of clergymen abusing children in the 1970s and had failed to take adequate action to address it.

Pell later said he was “surprised” by the findings of the investigation. “These views are not supported by any evidence,” Pell’s statement said.

Pell and his supporters believed he had been made a scapegoat for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sex abuse.

He died in Rome on January 10 of heart complications following hip surgery. Francis gave a final blessing at Pell’s funeral mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on January 14.

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