Cardinal George Pell’s funeral underway at the Vatican

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Cardinal George Pell’s funeral underway at the Vatican

Cardinal George Pell, who will soon begin his final journey to Australia, was a priest of conviction who didn’t worry about pleasing everyone and upset many.

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

The sudden death of the cardinal, once a right-hand man of the Pope, led to an outpouring of sadness and gratitude for his service by many devout Catholics across the nation and the globe.

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

The 81-year-old was described as one of the ‘greatest churchmen’ and, by former prime minister Tony Abbott, as ‘a saint for our times’ who was a committed ‘defender of Catholic orthodoxy’ and was also the victim of a ‘modern form of crucifixion’.

For Australian survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, Cardinal Pell’s death in Rome on Wednesday due to complications following hip surgery, brought up complicated emotions.

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

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

Weeks later, a final report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found he knew in 1973 about the sexual abuse of children by priests and Christian Brothers.

‘His true sentence begins with death,’ a spokesman for SNAP – the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – said on Wednesday.

The words ‘burn in hell’ trended on Twitter.

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

He was progressive on some social issues – unrestrained capitalism was callous, the war in Iraq wasn’t morally justified and mandatory detention for asylum seekers was wrong.

He was a conservative on matters of faith – defending the sanctity of the confessional and clerical celibacy and standing against the ordination of women.

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Supporters viewed him as struggling for the soul of the Church in a secular world.

At Ballarat’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had prayed during his childhood, Assistant Priest Jim McKay led a mass of remembrance, likening the cardinal to a political figure who was loved or hated for what he stood for, but who in the end didn’t care about appeasing everyone.

‘He basically stood to the doctrines of that which he held firmly and very strongly to his own heart and he wasn’t worried about whether he was going to ostracise those that didn’t agree with him, and I think that was part of his legacy,’ he said.

Cardinal Pell once described ‘hysterical and extreme’ claims about global warming as symptomatic of ‘pagan emptiness’ in the West. He campaigned against embryonic stem cell research and argued condoms encouraged promiscuity therefore it was ridiculous to think they could solve the AIDS crisis.

In 2002, he told a World Youth Day gathering in Canada that ‘abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people’.

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

In support of survivors, he attended Father McKay’s service wearing a Frenzal Rhomb band T-shirt depicting Cardinal Pell in hell. The fence surrounding the church was adorned with ribbons in recognition of abuse victims ahead of the mass.

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

In the intervening months, he underwent double knee replacement surgery.

At 190cm, he was an imposing figure. In his youth, he was a sportsman and played reserves for Richmond Football Club.

By the time of his trials, six decades later, his confident strides had turned to wobbly shuffles.

‘It’s clear that he is a man labouring under a disability,’ County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd said at the time, as he granted the cardinal bail to undergo surgery.

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

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It was hip surgery that was his downfall. Cardinal Pell died from a heart attack, reportedly while talking to an anaesthetist after he awoke from the procedure.

Though 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 give evidence to the abuse royal commission by videolink after a specialist said the presence of hypertension 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 just the right thing to do, we have a right to know what you knew,’ he said in a song that went viral.

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

Home, in the cardinal’s formative years, was Ballarat.

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

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

He was last seen in public in that same basilica in early January, mourning the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who passed away on December 31.

And it will be there that a requiem mass will be held for Cardinal Pell on Saturday, and a final blessing given by Pope Frances I, before his body is returned 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 at Oxford in England, Cardinal Pell returned to Australia as assistant priest in Swan Hill in 1971.

He went back to Ballarat in 1973, became rector at Corpus Christi for a time and was promoted to auxiliary bishop in Melbourne in 1987.

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

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It was allegations of abuse by others that prompted his creation of the Melbourne Response, a world-first initiative to investigate claims and counsel and compensate survivors.

In 2002, Cardinal Pell faced the first of the allegations that he too was an abuser.

Retired judge Alec Southwell cleared him of allegations he sexually abused a 12-year-old at an altar boys’ 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, handed unprecedented control over its finances.

As is customary, Cardinal Pell offered his resignation when he turned 75. It was knocked back.

But he did stand down from the financial role, never returning to it, after arriving in Melbourne in July 2017 to fight abuse charges laid by Victoria Police a month earlier.

He had already publicly denied the allegations – those which went to trial and others that he abused multiple boys in Ballarat in the 1970s – rejecting them as ‘without foundation and utterly false’.

Cardinal Pell maintained his innocence. Even before he was sentenced his barrister, Robert Richter KC, filed a challenge with Victoria’s Court of Appeal.

The jury’s verdict was upheld 2-1. Justice Mark Weinberg, a criminal law specialist, was the dissenting voice. He had genuine doubts as to Cardinal Pell’s guilt.

The six-year sentence, and a non-parole period ending in October 2022, was overturned by the High Court six months later.

Vision of Cardinal Pell being driven from Barwon Prison was live-streamed on television. He wasted no time leaving Victoria within 24 hours of his release.

He stayed 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, led tributes on Wednesday, saying Cardinal Pell’s impact would be long-lasting.

Whether for supporters or opponents, there’s no doubt that’s true.

 – Australian Associated Press

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