Since Cardinal George Pell died of a cardiac arrest on 10 January, campaigners against institutional child sexual exploitation and abuse within the church have been tying coloured ribbons to the fence outside of Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral in support of youths who have suffered at the hands of the clergy.
Pell was stationed at St Mary’s from 2001 through to 2014, when he served as Archbishop of Sydney. And after his 10 January passing in Italy, where he had served as Vatican treasurer, Pell’s body has been returned to this city ahead of a requiem mass to be held at St Mary’s this Thursday at 11 am.
Following both the NSW and Victorian premiers having ruled out state funerals, the Archdiocese of Sydney announced that Pell will lie in state at St Mary’s from Wednesday morning until the mass of the following day, which will be followed by his burial.
A jury found Pell guilty of five historical child sex crimes in 2018, which was a verdict overturned by the High Court on a technicality the following year. While a royal commission found the cardinal was actively complicit in the long-term coverup of child sexual crimes perpetrated by the clergy.
Community Action for Rainbow Rights (CARR) further points out that Pell was also one of the most ardent conservative political commentators over recent decades, as he campaigned against LGBTQ rights, marriage equality and reproductive freedom.
So, CARR and its supporters are staging the Pell Go to Hell rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park, directly across from St Mary’s, at the same time as the requiem mass this Thursday morning, to not only call out the legacy of the notorious priest, but also the political elite that will be honouring him.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to CARR co-convenor April about the harms caused by the former Sydney archbishop’s reactionary campaigning, the fact that the protest is also against the conservative elite in attendance and the destruction Pell left in his wake.
The body of Cardinal George Pell will lie in state at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney ahead of a requiem mass and private burial service this Thursday. Community Action for Rainbow Rights is holding the Pell Go to Hell rally in response.
April, why is it necessary to protest this event?
It’s necessary because not only did Pell have a long dishonourable and disgraceful life campaigning against every issue of social justice and every issue of fighting oppression, as well as dedicating his life to protecting vile institutional abuse of children, but he has also attracted the support and adoration of other powerful people in the Australian political system.
This funeral is going to be attended by high-ranking politicians, such as Tony Abbott. While other politicians, like John Howard, have said that Pell should never have been charged with child sexual abuse and with protecting child sexual abusers, let alone him being convicted.
When this is the response of the political elite – to defend someone as vile as this – it’s very important that this funeral is not seen as a private event.
It’s a public celebration of someone who campaigned against LGBT rights, campaigned against abortion rights and campaigned against climate action.
Pell used his incredible prestige and power to ruin the lives of generations of LGBT people and others.
So, in that sense, we’re protesting against all those politicians who will be there, who celebrate that life and want to see that legacy carried on.
We want to say that we are not going to let that legacy continue.
CARR states that for “decades Cardinal George Pell was a key figure of right wing conservatism in Australian society”. So, what sort of harms would you say Pell caused in his role as an ultraconservative social commentator?
He contributed to debates, in particular, around issues of LGBT rights, women’s rights, abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and even stem cell research. John Howard famously consulted Pell for his opinion on that research.
And when Pell did this, he used his huge clout as the highest-ranking figure of the Catholic Church in Australia, and one of the highest in the world, to be a loud voice against equality.
He also used his connections with the political elite, and while most of them aren’t staunch Catholics, they recognised him as a fellow member of the elite.
When there was a spate of suicides of young gay Catholics, Pell’s comment was to say that homosexuality was a greater health hazard than smoking, despite it being his homophobia and that of his religious institution that drove these people to suicide.
And when a lot of the sexual abuse of the Church was being revealed in the early 2000s, he said abortion is a greater moral crime than the child sexual abuse of a priest. So, in one blow there, he both protected an actual evil and opposed progress for women.
You only have to look at America today, where abortion rights have been overturned at the federal level, to see where this rhetoric can go.
Pell put everything he could into the campaign to vote no to marriage equality. And although he failed, the Catholic Church, under his leadership, has been extremely vocal in demanding a Religious Discrimination Bill from a Labor or Liberal government.
That legislation is basically a way to carry on the discrimination and oppression that goes on in that institution’s hospitals and schools.
That is the legacy he has behind him: destroying the lives of thousands of people, whether that’s through the homophobia of his Church, being a force to deny women their reproductive health or whether that’s through protecting an institution that is one of the worst purveyors of child sexual abuse in the world.
There are those out there that would say protesting the funeral of such a figure is in bad taste, and the rally shouldn’t be staged. How would you respond to them?
What is in bad taste is to hold a grand celebration of this man’s life, when there is absolutely nothing to celebrate about it.
The fact that all these archbishops from around the world are coming, as are the esteemed figures of Australian life, they’re all basically blessing this event by attending and saying this is a man worthy of veneration, prayers and vigils – that is the disgrace here.
And we still don’t know if Anthony Albanese is going to be in attendance.
All that should be happening is a long line of people spitting on this man’s grave. That would be real justice.
This man should only be seen as one of the faces of ruling class oppression in our society, one of the faces of ruling class hypocrisy in our society and a reminder that these people will stoop to any level of depravity and hypocrisy when it comes to defending wealth and privilege.
In that sense, it’s a very public event that people have the right to protest and make their political case, because the people attending are determined to carry on his legacy and it would be giving them an open door to do that if we don’t get out and make the case that we will not let their right wing culture war carry on.
And April, for those who do attend on the day, what can they expect?
It’s going to be a lot more invigorating than the arcane affair inside the church. We’re going to be gathering at the Hyde Park Fountain, which is just across the road from the church.
We are going to hear from speakers from the LGBT community and other political groups about the appalling record of George Pell and why we need to continue the fight for LGBT rights in Australia.
Then we’re going to be marching along College Street and up to Taylor Square. This means we will pass right by the church and the people there, especially the political elite, can watch us celebrate the passing of this monster.
So, that is a great way to rub their faces in it, and we’re looking forward to doing that.
And going up Oxford Street, it’s a place with a proud tradition of defying people like George Pell, who spent his whole life trying to defeat us and, ultimately, he failed.