George Pell’s personal secretary condemns protests as ‘tsunami of hate’ ahead of funeral

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

George Pell’s personal secretary likened the “protests” about the cardinal in the wake of his death to a “tsunami of hate”, but dismissed the local criticism as “less than a ripple when viewed from the perspective of the global church”.

Pell’s death has triggered silent and peaceful protests from clergy abuse survivors and their supporters, who have tied ribbons to the fence around Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral, where the late cardinal will be buried later this morning.

Their attempt to give survivors a voice ahead of Pell’s funeral has been continually thwarted by church staff, who have been cutting down the ribbons daily. Ribbons tied to the fence on Wednesday were again removed overnight by a group of unknown men and women, who verbally clashed with police and yelled obscenities at survivors, protest organisers told the Guardian.

The LGBTQ+ community is also preparing to march past the cathedral protesting Pell’s long-held opposition to same-sex marriage and rights, after overcoming a police bid to shut the protest down.

On Wednesday, speaking at 5.30pm mass at St Mary’s, Pell’s personal secretary Joseph Hamilton denounced the criticism of Pell in the wake of his death and sought to reassure Catholics that it meant little.

“For 22 days now we have been inundated by plaudits, protests and pundits surrounding the passing of our cardinal,” he said, speaking near Pell’s coffin. “What may seem sometimes like a tsunami of hatred overshadowing these obsèques locally fades to less than a ripple when viewed from the perspective of the global church.

“Because for the vast majority of the worldwide Catholic family, our cardinal was ... a lion of the church, a magnet for vocations, a confessor bishop and a true cardinal priest. And now at the hour of vespers, we gather to do for him what Christians have done from the first centuries, to chant the songs, to listen to the scriptures, to hear the testimony of the church fathers and to pray for the repose of his soul.”

Related: Australian Catholic groups push for progressive church reforms in wake of George Pell’s death

Pell was found by the child abuse royal commission to have failed to act when he learned of child abuse complaints. The exhaustive, five-year royal commission found he both knew about child abuse, particularly within the Victorian diocese of Ballarat, and failed to take proper steps to act on complaints about dangerous priests.

Hamilton’s comments drew immediate condemnation from survivors.

Survivor Damian De Marco AM, who won a 2015 ACT Australian of the Year award for his campaigning, said they reflected the church’s dismissive attitude to the clergy abuse scandal.

“Hamilton’s comments show why his church treated child rape victims as insignificant issues to be swept under the carpet,” De Marco said.

Police were forced to intervene after a group of men removed ribbons and yelled obscenities at survivors and their supporters outside the cathedral about 8.30pm on Wednesday.

Police on Thursday morning speak to a man removing ribbons placed along a fence by supporters of sexual abuse survivors outside St Mary’s Cathedral where ribbons were removed overnight.
Police on Thursday morning speak to a man removing ribbons placed along a fence by supporters of sexual abuse survivors outside St Mary’s Cathedral where ribbons were removed overnight. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Simon Hunt, a satirist who has been helping organise the ribbon-tying, said the event was traumatic for survivors. The antagonisers appeared to [have] conflated the two protests – ribbon-tying by abuse survivors and the LGBTQ+ protest.

“However painful this removal [of ribbons] last night will be for survivors and their supporters who made up the bulk of the people who were there yesterday, they should really understand that this group is a very diminishing minority of people who essentially are putting the church above the safety of children,” Hunt said. “This really does not make a difference to that.”

Officers were already massing outside St Mary’s again early on Thursday morning.

Hamilton also gave a rare glimpse into the glowing reception Pell received when he returned to the Vatican, following his acquittal on allegations of child abuse and release from prison.

He described being called into meet Pope Francis. As they made their way through the antechamber of the papal study, Hamilton said Pell was repeatedly greeted with “welcome back, your eminence”.

“Before entering the papal study to meet Pope Francis, in a scene that will remain with me to the end of my days, monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, regent of the papal household, stepped out to greet us and to lead us into meet the pope,” he recalled.

“Suddenly, instead of moving forward however, he paused and he dropped to his knees in front of our cardinal, took his hand, kissed it, and said ‘Welcome, welcome. confessor of our church.’”

Meanwhile, on the same day as Pell’s funeral, a coalition of 20 Catholic groups will meet to push for significant reform of the church in Australia to make it more inclusive.

The Australasian Catholic Coalition for Church Reform will hold a convocation in support of Pope Francis’s commitment to a more inclusive church and less autocratic and patriarchal leadership.

Speaking to the Guardian last week, ACCCR project officer Kevin Triston said the timing of the two events was unintentional, but provided an “interesting contrast … between celebrating the life of a man who was very determined to take the church back to where it was 100 years ago, [and] a gathering of people who want to see the church moving in a way that’s proving productive for its members”.

The archdiocese of Sydney was approached for a response.