Australia's Catholic Church held a prayer vigil for late cardinal George Pell who lay in state Wednesday, as sexual abuse survivors tied ribbons to the cathedral gates in protest.

Pell, a Vatican powerbroker who rose from humble beginnings in small town Australia, died in Rome in January, aged 81.

Once considered Pope Francis's "right-hand man", Pell's final years were marked by sexual abuse allegations and criticism of his hard-line positions on abortion and gay marriage.

Pell spent 13 months in prison after he was convicted of sexually abusing two teenage choirboys while archbishop of Melbourne. The convictions were quashed on appeal in 2020.

In a symbolic act of protest, sexual abuse survivors tied coloured ribbons to the gates of Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral, where Pell's body lay in repose ahead of his funeral on Thursday.

The ribbons were repeatedly removed.

Police had asked the courts to ban a protest planned for Thursday, the day of Pell's burial, but abruptly dropped the case Wednesday.

Demonstrations have been organised in major centres across the country, including Ballarat -- the small southeastern town where Pell was born.

Chrissie Foster spent more than 20 years campaigning for church reform after two of her daughters were sexually abused by a Catholic priest in suburban Melbourne in the 1990s.

Foster said Pell was dismissive and "confrontational" when she tried to tell him about her daughters.

"I think his legacy is that he upheld the... traditional yet incomprehensible practice of protecting paedophile priests and abandoning children," she told AFP.

"That system he installed just ensured victims continue to suffer."

Following his death, former prime minister and Pell's longtime friend Tony Abbott said the cardinal had been smeared by a "monstrous allegation" -- and should be remembered as a "saint for our times".

- 'Silence a priority' -


Australian lawyer John Ellis was molested as a 13-year-old altar boy in the 1970s, and confronted Pell after suing the Sydney archdiocese in the early 2000s.

He said Pell -- who was archbishop of Sydney at the time -- relentlessly sought to undermine his credibility in order to protect the Church, which eventually won the drawn-out legal fight.

"It went against my whole upbringing as a Catholic, to be in this battle and to be portrayed as an enemy of the church," Ellis told AFP.

"I had no idea of the extent of the dirty tactics that were being engaged against me."

- 'Bitter taste' -


Years later, after appearing before a government inquiry into child sexual abuse, Pell personally apologised to Ellis for the "terrible affair".

"He didn't even make eye contact," Ellis said. "It felt quite contrived. It did leave a bitter taste in my mouth."

Pell would later concede that he had not done enough to protect church abuse victims.

"I would agree that we have been slow to address the anguish of the victims and dealt with it very imperfectly," he told the inquiry.

The inquiry concluded that Pell "was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy" but that "he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it".

Pell voluntarily returned to Australia in 2016 to face accusations that he molested two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s.

In 2019, he was sentenced to six years in prison and registered as a sex offender -- but he was released after his convictions were overturned.

Historian Miles Pattenden said many supporters felt Pell had been unfairly persecuted.

"Those who believed him were strengthened in their views that he was a martyr," he told AFP.

Pattenden said Pell was one of Australia's leading conservative voices, with outspoken views against abortion and homosexuality.

"It made him a hero to many... because he seemed to be the only senior Catholic who was willing to voice these opinions," he told AFP.

"On the other hand, many people in Australia loathe Pell, and that is clear from the reactions to his death."