Pell's secret memo casts shadow at cardinal's funeral

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis gave a funeral blessing to Cardinal George Pell on Saturday as revelations that he wrote an anonymous memo branding the current papacy a "catastrophe" hung in the air along with the incense.

About 300 people attended Pell's funeral Mass in a secondary chapel of St. Peter's Basilica. In keeping with tradition for deceased cardinals, the Mass was said by the dean of the College of Cardinals, Italian Giovanni Battista Re.

Francis arrived at the end to give the final blessing in Latin over the dark brown wooden coffin on the floor. The coffin was incensed and sprinkled with holy water.

Re's words were less a homily than a biography of Pell, 81, who died on Tuesday night in a Rome hospital of heart failure during hip replacement surgery.

Re mentioned that Pell had spent more than a year in jail before being acquitted of sexual abuse allegations in his native Australia in 2020.

"The last years of his life were marked by an unjust and painful condemnation," Re said.

SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, in a statement had called on the Vatican to show "restraint" in funeral arrangements "unless the Church hierarchy wants to deepen already deep wounds".

But Pell was given a standard solemn Vatican funeral for a cardinal. Re began the service by reading out the full text of a message the pope issued on Wednesday praising Pell for persevering in trying times.

The small talk after the funeral, particularly among diplomats and journalists, centered around the bombshell revelation.

Last year, respected Italian journalist Sandro Magister, who has a long track record of receiving leaked Vatican documents, published an anonymous memo circulating in the Vatican condemning Pope Francis' papacy as a "catastrophe".

The day after Pell died, Magister disclosed on his widely read blog Settimo Cielo (Seventh Heaven) that it was Pell who wrote the memo and gave him permission to publish it under the pseudonym "Demos" - Greek for populace. It included what the author said should be the qualities of the next pope.

"Commentators of every school, if for different reasons ... agree that this pontificate is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe," the memo begins.

"The first tasks of the new pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition," it reads.

Father Joseph Hamilton, Pell's personal secretary, declined to comment on Magister's report and Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said it had no comment.

Hamilton told Reuters after the funeral that Pell's body will be flown to Australia early next week to be buried in the crypt at St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, where he served as archbishop.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Potter)