Cardinal George Pell’s funeral takes place at the Vatican

Cardinal George Pell, who is about to embark on his final trip to Australia, was a staunch priest, unconcerned about pleasing everyone and angering many.

It would be hard to name an Australian more divisive than George Pell.

The cardinal’s sudden death, once a right-hand man to the pope, prompted an outburst of sadness and gratitude for his ministry among many devout Catholics across the country and around the world.

The bells at St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne rang for 30 minutes to mark his death and flags were flown at half-mast outside.

The 81-year-old has been described as one of the “greatest churchmen” and by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as “a saint of our time” who was a committed “defender of Catholic orthodoxy” and also a victim of a “modern form of crucifixion”.

For Australian survivors of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Cardinal Pell’s death in Rome on Wednesday from complications following hip surgery has stirred complicated emotions.

Cardinal Pell was found guilty in December 2018 of sexually abusing two teenage choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. He was the oldest member of the Catholic Church to be jailed for child sexual abuse.

After 400 days behind bars, spent gardening and journaling, he was released by Australia’s highest court.

Weeks later, a final report from the Royal Commission in Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse stated that he knew about child sexual abuse by priests and Christian brothers in 1973.

“His true punishment begins with death,” a spokesman for SNAP – the network of survivors of those who were abused by priests – said on Wednesday.

The words “burn in hell” were trending on Twitter.

Cardinal Pell was a divisive figure long before the abuse allegations became public.

He was progressive on some social issues—ruthless capitalism was callous, the war in Iraq was morally unjustified, and the forced detention of asylum seekers was wrong.

He was a conservative on matters of faith – he defended the sanctity of denominational and clerical celibacy and opposed the ordination of women.

Supporters saw him as a struggle for the soul of the church in a secular world.

At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat, where he had prayed as a child, Assistant Priest Jim McKay led a memorial service and likened the cardinal to a political figure who was loved or hated for what he stood for, but ultimately wasn’t did anxious to appease everyone.

“He basically stood by the teachings of what he held firmly and very strongly in his own heart and he wasn’t worried about excluding those who didn’t agree with him and I think that was part of it by his inheritance,” he said.

Cardinal Pell once described “hysterical and extreme” claims about global warming as symptomatic of the “pagan void” in the West. He opposed embryonic stem cell research, arguing that condoms encourage promiscuity, making it ridiculous to think they could solve the AIDS crisis.

In 2002, at a World Youth Day gathering in Canada, he said that “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests who sexually abuse young people.”

That comment summed up what the cardinal stood for, believes a Ballarat man named Matt.

In support of survivors, he attended Father McKay’s service wearing a Frenzal Rhomb t-shirt depicting Cardinal Pell in Hell. The fence around the church was decorated with ribbons before Mass to pay tribute to victims of abuse.

While Cardinal Pell was sentenced in December 2018, a suppression order prevented the news from being released until late February 2019.

In the intervening months he underwent double knee replacement surgery.

At 190 cm he was an imposing figure. In his youth he was an athlete, playing reserve for Richmond Football Club.

By the time of his court hearings, six decades later, his confident stride had turned to a shaky shuffle.

“It is clear that he is a man suffering from a disability,” said District Court Chief Justice Peter Kidd, at the time granting the cardinal bail to undergo surgery.

He used a walking stick when he returned to court for sentencing.

It was a hip operation that was fatal to him. Cardinal Pell reportedly died of a heart attack while speaking to an anesthesiologist after the procedure.

Although the timing of his death was surprising, the cause was less so.

Cardinal Pell had a pacemaker fitted in 2010 and six years later he was allowed to testify via video link before the royal abuse commission after a specialist said the presence of high blood pressure and ischemic heart disease meant a long-haul flight posed a serious risk to his health.

It was a disappointing outcome for abuse survivors and their advocates, including comedian and songwriter Tim Minchin.

“Come home, Cardinal Pell, come down from your citadel. It’s spot on, we have a right to know what you knew,” he said in a song that went viral.

Cardinal Pell came home, but not until nearly 18 months later.

Ballarat was his home during the cardinal’s formative years.

He was born to a devout Catholic mother and a non-practicing Anglican father who was a boxing champion and publican.

After studying at Corpus Christi College in Werribee and the Vatican’s Pontifical Urban University, Cardinal Pell was ordained a priest in 1966 in St. Peter’s Basilica.

He was last seen in public at the same basilica in early January, mourning the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. mourned, who died on December 31st.

And there, on Saturday, a funeral mass will be held for Cardinal Pell and a final blessing will be given by Pope Francis I before his body is taken back to Australia to be buried in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, where he once sat as archbishop.

After further studies in Rome and Oxford, England, Cardinal Pell returned to Australia in 1971 as an assistant priest at Swan Hill.

He returned to Ballarat in 1973, became interim Rector at Corpus Christi and was promoted to Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne in 1987.

Nine years later he became Archbishop of Melbourne and then a storm of sexual abuse allegations erupted, though not against the cardinal – not yet.

It was allegations of abuse by others that led him to found the Melbourne Response, a world-first initiative to investigate claims and provide advice and compensation to survivors.

In 2002, Cardinal Pell faced the first allegations that he too was a perpetrator.

Retired Judge Alec Southwell acquitted him of sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy at an altar boy camp in 1962.

A year later, in 2003, he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. A decade later he was the third most powerful man in the Vatican and handed over unprecedented control of its finances.

As usual, Cardinal Pell tendered his resignation when he turned 75. He was repelled.

But he stepped down from the financial role and never returned, having arrived in Melbourne in July 2017 to address abuse allegations made by Victoria Police a month earlier.

He had already publicly denied the allegations – those going to court and others that he had molested several boys in Ballarat in the 1970s – dismissing them as “unfounded and utterly false”.

Cardinal Pell protested his innocence. Before he was convicted, his attorney, Robert Richter KC, lodged an appeal with the Victoria’s Court of Appeal.

The verdict of the jury was confirmed with 2:1. Judge Mark Weinberg, a criminal justice specialist, was the dissenting voter. He had serious doubts about Cardinal Pell’s guilt.

The six-year sentence and a period of no parole, which ended in October 2022, were overturned by the High Court six months later.

The vision of Cardinal Pell’s expulsion from Barwon Prison was televised live. He wasted no time and left Victoria within 24 hours of his release.

He remained in Sydney until COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted and he could return to the Vatican to live out his days.

His successor as Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, performed tributes on Wednesday and said Cardinal Pell’s impact will be long-lasting.

Whether for supporters or opponents, there is no doubt about that.

– Australian Associated Press Cardinal George Pell’s funeral takes place at the Vatican

Emma Colton

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