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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Ben Doherty in Sydney

A ‘Lionheart’ to some, a villain to others – George Pell’s funeral proves as divisive as his life

In the hour before the funeral of Cardinal George Pell, on the dark flagstones of the forecourt of St Mary’s Cathedral, the faithful sank to their knees, rosaries in hand, and intoned: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee …”

Across the road, over the heads of the police, rang the chants from protesters: “Go to hell, George Pell”.

In celebration or in condemnation, George Pell could always draw a crowd.

No priest in Australian history has ever climbed so high in the Catholic hierarchy as Pell. Few have attracted so much opprobrium. He was 56 years an ordained priest, 18 years an archbishop in Melbourne and Sydney. He was a cardinal for 20 years, and a prisoner for one.

Pell died last month, aged 81, in Rome.

To Sydney on Thursday, they came – some to praise him, others to bury him in opprobrium. Some compared him to Richard the Lionheart, others made the case for canonisation. Others still condemned him for his intransigence in the face of widespread child sexual abuse within the church, and his churches’ failures to protect its most vulnerable.

Over his life in the church, he emerged as the figurehead of conservative Catholicism in Australia, a spear carrier in its culture wars, immovable in his defence of the church, and his unflinching in views on homosexuality, reproductive rights and climate change.

Equally, Pell had come to represent the egregious and repeated failures of the church to protect children from abuse, and its consistent efforts to prioritise the institution’s reputation and its assets over the safety of children.

Some of those failures were not only institutional, but personal. The royal commission into child sexual abuse found Pell, as an auxiliary bishop in Ballarat, knew children were being abused by priests in his diocese but failed to protect them.

Separately, in 2018, Pell was convicted of child sexual abuse, and spent 404 days in prison, before his conviction was unanimously overturned by the high court and he was freed.

The day before Pell’s funeral, the wrought-iron fence around the cathedral was festooned with thousands of brightly coloured ribbons, a rainbow of remembrance and support for the child victims of church sexual abuse.

By the time of Pell’s solemn pontifical funeral mass, a few hundred remained. Late on Wednesday night, an unidentified group descended upon the church and cut the ribbons from the fence.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott looks across at protesters as the casket of Cardinal George Pell is carried from St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott looks across at protesters as the casket of Cardinal George Pell is carried from St Mary’s Cathedral. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

On a muggy summer Thursday, thousands came to Sydney’s cathedral – to mourn and to reproach him.

On the western side of College Street, protesters held up banners declaring “Pell, Burn in Hell”, and marking his “Infernal Resting Place” underground.

Inside, the politically charged service was notable for who it did attract and did not. Neither the prime minister of Australia, nor premier of New South Wales – both of Catholic backgrounds, the latter practising – chose to come.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, Jesuit-educated and Pell’s fellow political traveller, did come. He told the congregation Pell was “the greatest Catholic Australia has produced and one of Australia’s greatest sons”, but a man “made a scapegoat for the church itself”.

He said Pell’s prosecution was a “modern-day crucifixion”, and noted the ineludible reality of the protest outside, jokingly – or perhaps seriously? – beginning a campaign for Pell’s canonisation.

“As I heard the chant ‘Cardinal Pell should go to hell’, I thought ‘a-ha, at least they now believe in the afterlife’. Perhaps this is Saint George Pell’s first miracle?”

But the tension of the duality of Pell’s public reputation was inescapable, even inside the vast arches of the gothic revivalist cathedral.

On occasion, in the quiet moments, as the last of the chords from the mighty organ quieted, the outside world would come rushing in: noisy, unapologetic, furious, the sound of the protests, the chants of “shame”.

The archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, in detailing Pell’s extensive career in the church, was pointed, noting the cardinal’s “404 days spent in prison for a crime he did not commit”, despite a “media, police and political campaign to punish him whether guilty or not”.

Fisher compared Pell to Richard the Lionheart, in bearing and in valour.

“Six-feet five-inches tall, striking and athletic, Richard dominated every room he entered. He was a far-from-perfect prince: the calumnies of his enemies were baseless, and his imprisonment wrongful, and he is remembered by history as Richard Coeur de Lion, the Lion Heart, because of his courage.”

Fisher conceded Pell was a dichotomous figure, seen by some as “demanding, pugilistic, polarising, and others as faithful, hospitable and witty”.

But the cardinal was, Fisher said, “a giant of a man, with a big vision for the church in Australia”.

“He had a big heart too, strong enough to fight for the faith and endure persecution, but soft enough to care for priests, youth, the homeless, prisoners and imperfect Christians.”

Fisher’s homily did not once mention the victims of child sexual abuse, or Pell’s responses to it. Instead, it focused on the cardinal’s broad and energetic works on behalf of the institution he served.

Protesters march in support of clergy sexual abuse survivors and the LGBTQI+ community as the pontifical requiem mass for Cardinal George Pell takes place.
Protesters march in support of clergy sexual abuse survivors and the LGBTQI+ community as the pontifical requiem mass for Cardinal George Pell takes place. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Pell was, Fisher concluded, a man who “served his church: shamelessly, vehemently, courageously, to the end”.

Across, in Hyde Park, the voluble, tenacious group of protesters condemned Pell for that very same thing.

“This was a man on the wrong side of history,” protest leader Eddie Stephenson said.

In protection of a rotten institution, Pell “wanted to trample on the rights of women”, she argued, had denied the science of climate change, and had failed to protect children preyed upon by members of his church.

“We reject Pell and everything he stood for.”

At the conclusion of the three-hour mass, 275 priests and 75 seminarians led the processional out on to the contested ground of College Street. This was the dividing line. A fractious schism of metal barricades, police cordons and world views.

The clergy, guarded by a line of police, stood silently on the baking tarmac. The protesters barracked “shame on you”.

The contest over George Pell, his reputation and his legacy, has not ended with his death.

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