12 Jan 2023

'Couldn't think of anything that would be more distressing' - Victoria rules out Pell state funeral

6:43 pm on 12 January 2023
Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal George Pell. Photo: AFP

The Victorian premier has ruled out hosting a state funeral or service for the late Cardinal George Pell, saying it would distress survivors of abuse.

Daniel Andrews said Victoria would not hold a state service for Pell, saying people should "never ever" forget victims of abuse.

"I couldn't think of anything that would be more distressing for victim survivors than that."

"I think more importantly, what will be a very challenging time for victim survivors, to send the clearest possible message that we see you, we believe you, we support you," Andrews said during a media conference on Thursday morning.

"And you're at the centre of not only our thoughts not only our words, but our actions.

"We should never forget - never, ever forget - that predator brothers and priests were systemically moved around knowingly, was part of a strategy from one working class parish to the next."

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet also confirmed there would be no state funeral service in the state.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews speaks during a press conference in Melbourne on September 26, 2020 as the state government battles criticism of its handling of city's second wave of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews. Photo: William West / AFP

Pell, Australia's most senior Catholic, died on Tuesday local time in Rome, after complications during hip surgery, leaving a mixed legacy due to his overturned conviction for child abuse.

Cardinal Pell, 81, became Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, and the Archbishop of Sydney in 2001. He was appointed as a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

In 2018 he was found guilty of abusing two choirboys in the 1990s, and spent more than a year behind bars, before his conviction was quashed by the High Court.

The ruling allowed the then-78-year-old Pell to walk free, ending the case of the most senior figure accused in the global scandal of historical sex abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.

A special mass will be held at the Vatican for Pell, before his body is flown back to Sydney for burial.

This photo illustration shows the front pages of Australia's major newspapers reporting the conviction of Cardinal George Pell in Sydney on February 27, 2019, after suppression orders were lifted.

Pell's conviction was later overturned. Photo: AFP

Somber service held at cathedral

The regular Thursday mass at St Patrick's Cathedral in Ballarat took on a more sombre tone as supporters and detractors of Pell gathered for a service a day after the Cardinal's death in Rome.

Cardinal Pell was born and bred in Ballarat and climbed the church ladder in the Ballarat Diocese, serving as parish priest in Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983.

Even though he was acquitted of sexually abusing choir boys, to many people in Ballarat Pell has come to represent the church's inaction on abuse by clergy.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse found Pell knew, or ought to have known, about the child sex abuse rife in the diocese during his time as parish priest, but failed to stop it.

Cardinal Pell's supporters argue he was a man who was unfairly treated in the courts of law and public opinion.

Delivering his homily inside the cathedral, assistant priest Jim McKay compared the "persecution" of Cardinal Pell to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," he said.

Father McKay highlighted Cardinal Pell's Melbourne Response to child sex abuse, which offered payments of A$50,000 (NZ$54,267) for victims when it was introduced in 1996.

Legal barriers to suing the church have since been removed, allowing victims to seek more compensation.

The congregation prayed for Cardinal Pell and for the victims of "child molestation", many of whom died by suicide in the decades after they suffered abuse at the hands of clergy.

"We cannot change what has happened in the past. We can change what happens in the future," Father McKay said.

Organ player Judy Houston says most of the parish were "just very sad" about the abuse that happened.

"We can only hope it will never happen again."

Mournful organ music filled the air as worshippers left the building, telling journalists to "have some respect".

However, the day before, hours after the news broke, someone drove around the church block blaring 'La Cucaracha' on their vehicle's horn.

Outside the service, some people tied new ribbons to the cathedral's fence in memory of victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy.

One woman, who was born and raised in the Ballarat area, said she was not there to mourn Pell.

"My thoughts are more with people who suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church. I would rather remember them than remember anybody else," she said.

"I'm not interested in George Pell. I'm interested in helping people [who] suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church and people who weren't protected and should have been."

Another local man, Matt, said he sat in on the service because he wanted to show support for victims of abuse.

"People saying how great he was, I just really struggle with that," he said.

"Forgiveness? Yeah, I get that, but not when someone is refusing to apologise or to show any reason for them to be forgiven."