SYDNEY (AP) — Mourners at the Sydney funeral for Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was once the most senior Catholic convicted of sex abuse, remembered him Thursday as a victim of a campaign to punish him regardless of his guilt.
Meanwhile, a few hundred protesters yelled slogans from the street denouncing Pell, a staunch conservative who had riled gay rights supporters and was among church leaders blamed for inaction on clergy sex abuse.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher told the mourners at St. Mary’s Cathedral that the once third-highest-ranking cleric in the Vatican was the author of a dozen books including three volumes of a diary he wrote in prison before his child abuse convictions were overturned in 2000.
“That was one happy fruit from 404 days spent in prison for crimes he did not commit following a media, police and political campaign to punish him whether guilty or not,” said Fisher, a longtime supporter of the man he succeeded as Sydney archbishop.
“Even after he was unanimously exonerated by the High Court of Australia, some continued to demonize him. But many appreciate the legacy of this most influential churchman in our nation’s history,” Fisher added.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a friend of Pell and a former seminarian, described the cardinal’s prosecution as a “modern day crucifixion.”
“He was made a scapegoat for the church itself,” Abbott told the mourners. Pell was a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held to account for past child sex abuse.
Outside the crowded cathedral, mourners watched the service on large screens.
A few hundred protesters yelled “George Pell, go to hell” from the street. Tensions had briefly flared earlier when several mourners tried to remove ribbons the protesters had tied to the cathedral’s fence to symbolize abuse victims.
As his coffin was moved in a hearse from the cathedral to the crypt where he was interred, more than 50 protesters yelled “shame” and sang the AC/DC hit “Highway to Hell.”
Pell died last month in Rome at age 81.
The abuse allegations against him were reported in the news media before Australian detectives flew to Rome in 2016 to question him.
Pell returned to Australia from the Vatican in 2017 to fight abuse allegations made by multiple complainants over decades in his home state of Victoria. Only charges that he abused two choirboys in his early months as archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s led to convictions.
His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury, but he was convicted after his second trial with a unanimous verdict. He lost his first appeal in a 2-to-1 ruling but was acquitted by all seven High Court judges.
He had spent more than a year in prison mostly in solitary confinement before he was cleared. But his Vatican career by then had ended.
Pope Francis, who in 2014 appointed Pell to be the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy tasked with reforming the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances, sent a message to the funeral that said Australia’s most senior Catholic had “laid the foundations with determination and wisdom” of the Vatican’s economic reforms.
Pell was revealed soon after his death to have been an influential critic of Francis’ papacy.
Pell was revealed as the author of a memo that had been circulating for many months in church circles. In the memo, Pell had lamented that the current papacy as a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.”
Separately, the day after Pell died, a conservative magazine published what it said was an article by the cardinal decrying as a “toxic nightmare” Francis’ determination to sound out Catholic laity on such issues as church teaching on sexuality and the role of women. Those issues will likely spark sharp debate later this year in a meeting of bishops summoned by Francis to the Vatican.
Sydney-based gay rights group Community Action for Rainbow Rights had called for people to join what it calls its “Pell go to Hell!” protest outside the cathedral.
Pell had riled gay activists with views including: “Homosexual activity is a much greater health hazard than smoking.”
Pell was archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until 2014 when he was called to the Vatican.
He was archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, the period during which he was alleged to have sexually abused two choirboys in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
As church leader of Melbourne and later of Sydney, Pell repeatedly refused to give Communion to gay activists wearing rainbow-colored sashes.
Pell was also a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held to account for past child sex abuse.
A national inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse found in 2017 that Pell knew of clergy molesting children in the 1970s and did not take adequate action to address it.
Pell later said he was “surprised” by the inquiry’s findings. “These views are not supported by evidence,” Pell’s statement said.
He died on Jan. 10 in Rome from heart complications following hip surgery. Francis imparted a final blessing at Pell’s funeral Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Jan. 14.
McGuirk contributed to this report from Canberra, Australia.