SYDNEY (AP) — Mourners at the funeral in Sydney of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was once the longest-serving Catholic convicted of sexual abuse, remembered him Thursday as a victim of a campaign to punish, regardless of his guilt.
Meanwhile, a few hundred protesters shouted slogans in the street denouncing Pell, a staunch conservative who had angered gay rights supporters and was among church leaders accused of inaction over clergy sex abuse.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher told mourners at St Mary’s Cathedral that the Vatican’s highest-ranking former cleric was the author of a dozen books, including three volumes of a diary which he wrote in prison before his child abuse convictions were overturned in 2000.
“It was a happy fruit of 404 days spent in prison for crimes he did not commit following a media, police and political campaign to punish him whether he was guilty or not,” he said. said Fisher, a longtime supporter of whoever he succeeded as Archbishop of Sydney.
“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 clergyman in the history of our country,” said added Fisher.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a friend of Pell’s and a former seminarian, described the cardinal’s pursuit as a “modern day crucifixion”.
“He was made a scapegoat for the church itself,” Abbott told mourners. Pell has been a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held accountable for past child sexual abuse.
Outside the crowded cathedral, mourners watched the service on large screens.
A few hundred protesters shouted “George Pell, go to hell” from the street. Tensions briefly erupted earlier when several mourners tried to remove ribbons protesters had tied to the cathedral fence to symbolize victims of abuse.
As his coffin was moved in a hearse from the cathedral to the crypt where he was buried, more than 50 protesters shouted “shame” and sang the AC/DC hit “Highway to Hell.”
Pell died last month in Rome at the age of 81.
The abuse allegations against him were reported in the media before Australian detectives traveled 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 accusations of abusing two altar boys during his first 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 2-1 decision but was acquitted by all seven High Court judges.
He had spent over a year in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, before being cleared. But his career in the Vatican was then over.
Pope Francis, who in 2014 appointed Pell as the first prefect of the new Economic Secretariat tasked with reforming the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances, sent a message at the funeral saying Australia’s longest-serving Catholic had “laid the foundations with determination and wisdom” of the Vatican’s economic reforms.
Pell was revealed shortly after his death to have been an influential critic of the Francis papacy.
Pell was revealed as the author of a memo that had been circulating in church circles for many months. In the memo, Pell had lamented that the current papacy is a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.”
Separately, the day after Pell’s death, a conservative magazine published what it called the cardinal’s article denouncing as a “toxic nightmare” Francis’ determination to sound out Catholic laity on issues such as teaching. of the church on sexuality and the role of women. These questions are likely to spark heated debate later this year at a meeting of bishops convened by Francis at the Vatican.
Sydney-based gay rights group Community Action for Rainbow Rights had called on people to join what it calls its “Pell go to Hell!” demonstration in front of the cathedral.
Pell had annoyed gay activists with views such as, “Homosexual activity is a far greater health hazard than smoking.”
Pell served as Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until 2014, when he was called to the Vatican.
He served as Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, during which time he allegedly sexually abused two altar boys in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
As church leader of Melbourne and later Sydney, Pell repeatedly refused to give communion to gay activists wearing rainbow sashes.
Pell has also been a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held accountable for child sexual abuse.
A national survey of institutional responses to child sexual abuse found in 2017 that Pell was aware of clergy molestation of children in the 1970s and failed to take adequate steps to address it.
Pell later said he was “surprised” by the findings of the investigation. “These views are not supported by evidence,” Pell’s statement said.
He died on January 10 in Rome from heart complications following hip surgery. Francis gave a final blessing during Pell’s funeral mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on January 14.
McGuirk contributed to this report from Canberra, Australia.