CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Mourners paid their respects to Cardinal George Pell in a Sydney cathedral Wednesday a day before the funeral and interment of a polarizing church leader who was once the most senior 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, he returned to Australia in 2017 to fight 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 lie in St. Mary’s Cathedral until he is interred at the cathedral crypt after a funeral Mass on Thursday.
Sydney-based gay rights group Community Action for Rainbow Rights has called for people to join what it calls its “Pell go to Hell!” protest outside the cathedral and expects more than 300 demonstrators to attend.
Pell had riled gay activists with views including: “Homosexual activity is a much greater health hazard than smoking.”
The New South Wales Police Force had asked the New South Wales Supreme Court to prohibit the rally. But its application was withdrawn Wednesday after organizers agreed not to march on a street alongside the cathedral. The rally begins across the street from the cathedral at Hyde Park.
Justice Peter Garling praised both police and protesters for finding a compromise.
“I would like to thank the parties and the lawyers for resolving something that arouses no doubt great passions,” Garling said before leaving the bench without making a court order.
Police Acting Assistant Commissioner Martin Fileman described the street between the cathedral and the park as a “buffer zone” that reduced the risk of clashes between protesters and the thousands of mourners.
“We ask that people attending on both sides tomorrow that they’re respectful of each other. And that they comply with police directions,” Fileman told reporters outside court.
Protest organizer Kim Stern was satisfied that the demonstrators could be in earshot of the cathedral congregation.
“We’re now able to march up, right opposite the church and have our voices heard,” Stern told reporters.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet urged all sides to behave respectfully. Perrottet, a Catholic, said he will not attend the Mass, but will be represented by a government minister.
“I would say to everybody across our state today it’s a time to come together and show respect,” Perrottet told reporters.
Earlier Wednesday, protesters tied ribbons in memory of victims of clergy abuse to the cathedral’s fence.
Church officials had removed such ribbons in recent days, raising accusations of disrespect toward victims. But a cathedral official told protesters on Wednesday where ribbons could be placed and where they could not.
Still, protesters persisted in tying ribbons near the gates through which the hearse entered the cathedral grounds, and security guards repeatedly cut them down.
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 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.
Pell's Pontifical Requiem Mass in Sydney on Thursday will be livestreamed on the cathedral's YouTube channel and televised on large screens on the cathedral's forecourt to accommodate anticipated large numbers of mourners, church officials said.