On one side of Sydney’s College Street, the rich and powerful friends of Cardinal George Pell stepped out from luxury cars and entered St Mary’s Cathedral for his funeral service. On the other, about 250 protesters gathered around a huge rainbow flag and chanted. A sign painted in giant letters informed funeral attendees across the road that “PELL IS IN HELL”.
Three weeks earlier, Cardinal George Pell, the patron saint of right-wing culture war, had finally died. “Hallelujah!” most people thought.
Not official society, however. They mourned the loss of one of their most distinguished bigots. Editorials and obituaries in the Australian described the late Pell as a “Christian gentleman”, “a great servant and teacher” who led “a life of dedication to church and state” with “the love of Christ [as] the heart of [his] life”.
But it wasn’t just the usual right-wing suspects. Liberal broadsheets such as the Sydney Morning Herald adopted a more conflicted tone, yet still could not bear to treat a member of Australia’s noble elite with the savage contempt he deserved. “Pell’s achievements overshadowed by his defence of church’s interests”, the Herald editors wrote on 11 January. He was “an efficient financial administrator”, which makes his flaws—such as his virulent misogyny and lifelong complicity in systematic child rape—all the more tragic.
This putrid gush of admiration was topped off with a lavish funeral at St. Mary’s 2 February. The cathedral is well-known to progressive activists because the church hosts an annual “Day of the Unborn Child” march against abortion rights. In the week leading up to the funeral, survivors of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests tied thousands of ribbons to the cathedral fence in remembrance of the victims—only for church officials to cut them down.
“George Pell was a vicious bigot, who fought against every step forward for LGBT and women’s rights and was profoundly complicit in horrific abuse within the church”, said Eddie Stephenson, a Community Action for Rainbow Rights Activist (CARR) and chair of the rally.
“When people like Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton come out to publicly celebrate a monster like Pell and carry on his political legacy, it’s important that they’re met with a loud, angry protest that reminds them we’re going to fight back for the rights of the oppressed every step of the way.”
In the days leading up to the funeral, NSW police called and demanded that CARR move their protest away from the service. Activists refused to back down. Police then tried to prohibit the march entirely, hauling rally organisers in front of the NSW Supreme Court at the eleventh hour.
This provoked a flurry of media attention, and CARR pledged to protest and march whatever the court decision. Under such public scrutiny and pressure, police were forced to concede the protesters’ right to assemble directly opposite the church and march right past funeral attendees.
The protest heard from a variety of speakers with experience fighting the homophobia, misogyny and abuse of the Catholic church. Ken Davis, a gay socialist who helped to organise the first Mardi Gras in 1978, led the crowd in a chant of “Not the church, not the state, we shall decide our fate!”
Protesters marched across the street towards the police barrier, facing down Catholic thugs who looked as though they took their communion with protein powder. As the crowd chanted, “George Pell, go to hell, take Dutton there as well!”, some fascists foamed at the mouth, dangled their crucifixes and hurled homophobic abuse. Jesus did not heed their call to strike down the protesters, who carried banners for LGBTI rights all the way along College Street and up Oxford Street to Taylor Square.
The main enemy in attendance, however, was not a few papist shock troops, but the “dignitaries” important enough to get a seat inside. This was an ecumenical gathering of the establishment’s hard right wing: federal opposition leader Peter Dutton, former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard, radio shock jock Alan Jones and anti-trans crusader Mark Latham. Their common credo is not Catholic doctrine but a political program: extreme social conservatism, climate denialism and a smirking attitude to abuse of the vulnerable. The only Catholic among them, arch bigot Tony Abbott, delivered an utterly depraved eulogy. It was a call-to-arms to carry on the right-wing culture war.
“It’s surely now for the Australian church to trumpet the cause of its greatest champion”, Abbott said to rapturous applause. “There should be Pell study courses, Pell lectures, Pell high schools and Pell university colleges, just as there are for the other saints.” Pell, the crowd was told, had endured a Christ-like crucifixion over allegations of child sex abuse and his subsequent imprisonment. Abbott also found time at the pulpit to quote the cardinal that the climate change movement was a “pseudo-religion”.
The right’s paeans to Pell are so brazen that there is something of a wink and a smirk about it. They know he’s guilty of terrible crimes. But so what? He’s one of them. Sin is for the plebs; the ruling classes are absolved by their unshakeable faith that they were born to rule. Though Pell is now desiccating in a crypt and the influence of the Catholic church continues to decline, bigotry and abuse go much deeper than one man or one religion.
A celebration of Pell’s death broadcast across all the airwaves—including on international news—was a breath of fresh air. Official society had worked overtime to generate an atmosphere of deference. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spinelessly offered his condolences.
“It was powerful and palpable: you could see, walking past the people watching the service, what we’re up against, you could see the hatred directed towards us, right in front of us”, Vivian Moore, a LGBT activist and child sex abuse survivor, told Red Flag. “This rally gave a voice to survivors and people who have been oppressed by the church in all manner of ways.”
Yet the struggle continues. The ruling class warriors who attended his funeral are taking inspiration from the rise of the far right around the world. From the US to Brazil to Hungary, culture wars against women’s rights and progress for LGBTI people play an important role in cohering far-right audiences around a violently oppressive worldview. Left-wing people must now get active in fighting Pell’s acolytes and the whole system that protected him.