The “premature death” of the controversial cardinal George Pell “caught us all by surprise”, said Giovanni Battista Re, the dean of the college of cardinals, as he presided over Pell’s funeral in St Peter’s Basilica on Saturday.
Pell, who was Australia’s most senior Catholic and was found guilty and then acquitted of child sexual abuse, had undergone a hip operation in Rome and died after a cardiac arrest on Tuesday at the age of 81. Days earlier, he had attended the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI in the same cathedral.
Pell’s dark brown wooden coffin was carried into the church by seven pallbearers for a service that lasted just over an hour and which was given a final blessing and commendation by Pope Francis.
Mourners, mostly cardinals, priests and nuns, packed into a cordoned-off area in front of the altar while a group of tourists watched from behind the barrier.
“The death of George Pell took us all by surprise,” said Re. “A few days before he was with us, in this church, for the funeral of Benedict. Despite his 81 years, he was in good health. His death was premature.”
Re went on to say that during the last years of his life, Pell was “unjustly convicted” by an Australian court over the allegations of child sexual abuse. “He spent 404 days in a cell, in two maximum security prisons,” Re added. “Then another court acquitted him. It was an experience of great suffering, yet he accepted the penalty with dignity.”
Pell died at Salvator Mundi hospital in Rome after undergoing a long-planned hip operation. He had experienced heart problems and was fitted with a pacemaker in 2010.
He was given a traditional cardinal’s funeral. Before the ceremony, his body had been lying in state at St Stephen of the Abyssinians, one of the oldest churches in the Vatican which is ordinarily used for baptisms and weddings.
Pell’s body will be taken to Australia for burial.
Pell was born in Ballarat in 1941 and was ordained in 1966. He became a bishop in 1987 and was made a cardinal in 2003, serving as archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Pell – a staunch conservative who opposed same-sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion and contraception – rose through the ranks of the Catholic church in Australia before being placed in charge of the Vatican’s finances in 2014, making him the most senior Australian Catholic in history.
In 2018, he was convicted of molesting two teenage choirboys in the sacristy while he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He always maintained his innocence and his convictions were quashed by the high court in 2020.
Pell, who was a polarising figure in Australia over several decades, attracted criticism for suggesting abortion was a worse moral failing than Catholic clergy abusing children, describing contraception as a “heresy” and actively lobbying the Australian government against the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
“Even before the [sexual abuse] accusations he was a controversial figure in Australia, known for being an outspoken and forthright defender of Catholicism,” said James Farrell, a teacher from Ireland who was among the mourners in St Peter’s Basilica. “Nobody could ever accuse him of being timid. I didn’t know him but heard from others that during his time in prison he was at peace and without bitterness.”
Even after his death, Pell stirred controversy after it was revealed that he was the author of an anonymous memo condemning the papacy of Pope Francis as a “catastrophe”.
The memo was published last March under a false name on Settimo Cielo, a religious affairs blog run by the Italian journalist Sandro Magister, who himself is a conservative Catholic.
“He wanted it published exactly how it was written,” said Magister, who was also among the mourners.
The memo accused the church of silence on moral issues, including the German Catholic church’s openness to the LGBTQ community, female priests and communion for the divorced.
“Commentators of every school, if for different reasons … agree that this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe,” the memo began.
“Decisions and policies are often ‘politically correct’, but there have been grave failures to support human rights in Venezuela, Hong Kong, mainland China, and now in the Russian invasion. These issues should be revisited by the next Pope. The Vatican’s political prestige is now at a low ebb.”
Pell returned to Rome in September 2020 after his acquittal.
Magister said that during his final years, Pell “moved around autonomously” while building strong relations with a significant faction of the cardinal college. “He gave his explicit judgment on the situation of the church today,” said Magister. “He said exactly what he thought, and his frankness was appreciated even by his adversaries.”
In an interview with the Italian TV station Canale 5 in December, Pope Francis praised Pell for the work he did as the Holy See’s economy chief while referring to the “slander” he experienced in Australia. He was “innocent, but they made him an ugly, poor fellow”, the pope said.
However, Magister claims that Pell did not receive strong support from the Vatican during his time in prison.