Protesters clash with Catholic faithful outside Cardinal George Pell’s funeral

Protesters have clashed with Catholic faithful before the funeral of Cardinal George Pell at St Mary’s Cathedral in central Sydney, where thousands of people have gathered to farewell the divisive figure at a funeral service.

The former Catholic archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney will be farewelled with a requiem mass at the cathedral from 11am. Pell died from heart complications following hip surgery in Rome in January. He was 81.

The gathering was overall peaceful, with those gathered heeding the call of police to be respectful of each other – although there were sparks of intense conflict between anti-Pell protesters and the Catholic faithful.

The first outbreak of conflict came just before 10am, when a group of protesters placed signs bearing slogans including “PELL BURN IN HELL” and “INFERNAL LASTING PEACE” at Hyde Park, which is opposite the cathedral on College Street.

Their actions prompted several Catholic mourners to yell “Take it down!” at the protesters. Police ordered the protesters to remove the signs before they confiscated one of the signs.

But the protesters, who eventually walked further down to Taylor Square, did not deter the several thousand people gathered outside the church. Relying on two small screens that occasionally dropped out, the faithful and the curious stood in quietness as they listened to eulogies.

Joey Saab, a 26-year-old Catholic from Bankstown, said he was at the ceremony to unite the church after a period of division.

"We've been praying for all the falsely accused and the children who have been abused," he said.

"The best thing you can do is pray."

Pell’s successor as Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, will be the principal celebrant at the Pontifical Requiem Mass, also known as a mass for the dead. The cardinal will then be buried in a private ceremony in the St Mary’s Cathedral crypt, alongside other senior figures in the Catholic Church in Australia.

Former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton joined mourners at the cathedral. However, neither NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet nor NSW Labor leader Chris Minns will attend.

Protesters were on Wednesday given permission to gather opposite the cathedral after NSW Police withdrew a court challenge against the “Pell go to hell” protest organised by campaign group Community Action for Rainbow Rights.

NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb said the route agreed by police and organisers meant protesters would be able to march, but a “buffer zone” meant they would not intersect with mourners at the College Street cathedral.

“We certainly ask that anyone attending today, treat each other with respect, there’ll be mourners and protesters of different types,” Webb told 2GB radio’s Ben Fordham.

“There’s certainly a right to freedom of speech, and we respect that, but they need to respect the law.

A Pell protest car driving through the streets of Sydney.Credit:Anthony Segaert

“It’s highly charged and emotional for people on both sides, and all sides, but we just ask that they treat each other with respect today, follow the rules, and hopefully no one will get arrested.”

Protest organiser Kim Stern said police attempts to block the groups from getting anywhere near the cathedral had been “extremely frustrating”.

Prior to the protest, Stern said the peaceful protest would be “loud, vibrant and very visible”, and would denounce Pell’s strident and long-standing opposition to marriage equality, homosexuality and abortion rights. Pell had also faced allegations of covering up child sexual abuse.

Catholic faithful queue to attend the requiem mass for the late Cardinal George Pell at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on Thursday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Protesters joined LGBTQ activists and child sex abuse victims at Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, opposite the cathedral, from 10.30am.

“It’s really great that we’re able to march up to the church to show that opposition, not just to the cardinal, but also to Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott, other people like that who are going to be in attendance,” he told ABC TV’s News Breakfast.

Stern said the removal of coloured ribbons from the cathedral grounds overnight, which had been tied to its fence to remember those harmed by clerical abuse, was a “slap in the face of survivors”.

A man tries to remove ribbons from the grounds of St Mary’s Cathedral before the service.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

“It’s really important that we keep the pressure on the church, the people who defend it and people in the political establishment and the right wing in Australian politics that want to back up the church no matter what.”

Pell was the Vatican’s top finance minister before leaving Rome in 2017 to stand trial in Melbourne on child sexual abuse offences.

He was convicted the following year of molesting two teenage choirboys in the sacristy of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral while archbishop in 1996.

Pell maintained his innocence and in 2020 his convictions were quashed by the High Court.

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