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Former Australian PM hails George Pell as a ‘saint’ as funeral of controversial cardinal sparks protests

<i>Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images</i><br/>The funeral sparked angry confrontations outside the cathedral in Sydney.
Getty Images
Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
The funeral sparked angry confrontations outside the cathedral in Sydney.

By Angus Watson, Teele Rebane and Sophie Tanno, CNN

Cardinal George Pell remains a divisive figure even in death, with angry protests at his funeral in Sydney on Thursday and a former prime minister describing him as a “saint.”

The Cardinal’s funeral took place at St. Mary’s Cathedral, with police forced to intervene as protesters gathered to confront mourners.

Former Australian prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard were among those who attended his funeral. Abbott praised the late Cardinal Pell during a eulogy, describing him as a “soldier for truth” and a “saint for our times” in a speech that was met with applause.

Outside, police separated supporters of Pell from people protesting against the memorial for the Cardinal, who was convicted of child sex abuse before the ruling was overturned in 2020.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the cathedral after Australian police dropped a court bid to block the demonstration. Speeches against Pell and the Catholic Church were given in a nearby park, with some people holding banners and chanting “George Pell go to Hell.”

Three people, two men and one woman, were detained outside St. Mary’s Cathedral, New South Wales police said in a statement. Police said no charges were brought against them.

Joseph Samarasinghe, one of the mourners who attended the funeral, told CNN: “We can learn by our mistakes. And I think now the church is more aware of all the mistakes that the clergy has done. So I think we are in the right direction.”

Meanwhile Kim Stern, the protest organizer, said they will continue to fight against everything Cardinal Pell stood for until there is “full equality” in Australia.

“For the politicians, the judges, people from the political establishment that are attending the funeral service today, we want to send a message that we are going to fight against everything that the Catholic Church and Pell stood for. And continue to fight until there’s full equality in this country,” he said.

Cardinal Pell was the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of child sex abuse before the ruling was overturned in 2020. He died last month at the age of 81.

Born in the regional city of Ballarat, Australia, on June 8, 1941, Pell rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church to become Vatican treasurer, considered by many to be the third most senior position within the church.

He served in that role from 2014 to 2019 in charge of Pope Francis‘ financial reforms, which largely stalled when he was called back to Australia to face allegations of historical sex abuse.

Pell was convicted of those charges in 2018 and served 13 months in prison before Australia’s High Court overturned his conviction in April 2020.

The cardinal is a divisive figure in Australia and many on Twitter used the occasion of his death to express their support for the survivors of child sex abuse.

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Angus Watson reported from Sydney, Teele Rebane wrote in Hong Kong and Sophie Tanno wrote in London. Hilary Whiteman, Valentina Di Donato and Tara John contributed reporting.

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