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Hundreds gather for Cardinal George Pell’s Sydney funeral

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SYDNEY — Mourners as well as protesters carrying rainbow flags gathered at a Sydney cathedral on Thursday for the funeral and interment of polarizing Cardinal George Pell, who was once the most senior Roman Catholic convicted of sex abuse.

Pell, who died last month at age 81, spent more than a year in prison before his convictions were overturned in 2020.

Once the third-highest-ranking cleric in the Vatican, Pell returned to Australia in 2017 to fight child abuse allegations made by multiple complainants over decades in his home state of Victoria. Only charges that he abused two choirboys in his early months as archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s led to convictions. He spent 404 days in mostly solitary confinement before he was cleared. But his Vatican career by then had ended.

The staunchly conservative church leader will be interred at the St. Mary’s Cathedral crypt after a funeral Mass.

There was a heavy police presence at the cathedral in downtown Sydney as mourners began arriving hours before the funeral service.

Police aimed to maintain a separation between mourners and protesters, who gathered across a street from the cathedral in Hyde Park.

Former conservative Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott were expected to be among the mourners at the cathedral, while the current center-left Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was not expected to attend.

Tensions flared briefly early Thursday when several mourners tried to remove ribbons tied to the cathedral fence as a symbol of victims of clergy sex abuse.

Theresa Guzzo, a mourner who flew from New Zealand to attend the service, said she was against the presence of protesters. She felt Pell had become a “scapegoat” for animosity toward the Church.

“For me, it’s just inappropriate to do your protesting at the funeral where we’re saying goodbye to him, no matter what your belief is,” Guzzo said.

She said she initially “strongly” believed allegations of child abuse against Pell, but no longer did after he was cleared by the High Court and she reviewed the evidence.

Sydney-based gay rights group Community Action for Rainbow Rights had called for people to join what it calls its “Pell go to Hell!” protest outside the cathedral.

Pell had riled gay activists with views including: “Homosexual activity is a much greater health hazard than smoking.”

Pell was archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until 2014, when Pope Francis appointed him to be the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy tasked with reforming the Vatican’s notoriously opaque finances.

Pell had been archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, the period during which he was alleged to have sexually abused two choirboys in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was convicted then acquitted after a second appeal.

As church leader of Melbourne and later of Sydney, Pell repeatedly refused to give Communion to gay activists wearing rainbow-colored sashes.

“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and important consequences follow from this,” Pell told a St. Mary’s congregation in 2002 after he first refused Communion to a gay activist in Sydney.

Pell was also a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held to account for past child sex abuse.

A national inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse found in 2017 that Pell knew of clergy molesting children in the 1970s and did not take adequate action to address it.

Pell later said he was “surprised” by the inquiry’s findings. “These views are not supported by evidence,” Pell’s statement said.

Pell and his supporters believed he was scapegoated for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse.

He died on Jan. 10 in Rome from heart complications following hip surgery. Francis imparted a final blessing at Pell’s funeral Mass held at St. Peter’s Basilica on Jan. 14.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.