George Pell, Australia’s most senior Catholic, is lying in state in a closed dark brown wooden coffin behind the walls of the Vatican as preparations continue for his funeral, which will be blessed by Pope Francis.

Pell, who was the subject of damning findings by Australia’s child abuse royal commission, is in a coffin on the floor of the small church of St Stephen of the Abyssinians, inside the Vatican walls.

His coffin lies just metres away from the Santa Marta residence of Pope Francis. After his death on Wednesday, Pell was revealed as the author of anonymous letter criticising Francis’ papacy as a “disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe”.

Pell’s funeral is expected to take place on Saturday local time in St Peter’s Basilica. The mass will be led by the dean of the college of cardinals. The pope will give the final blessing and commendation.

Reuters reports that 20 people were seen kneeling in prayer in the church where Pell is lying in state. The church is typically used for baptisms and weddings. St Stephen of the Abyssinians, one of the oldest churches in the Vatican, opened for 10 hours. The small building was one of the few structures not to be demolished to build the current St Peter’s Basilica. Parts of it date back to the fifth century.

Pell died suddenly, suffering a heart attack after hip surgery in Rome. His death has prompted a divided response. Survivors of clergy abuse have struggled to come to terms with the praise for Pell, largely coming from Australia’s conservative politicians, including current Liberal leader Peter Dutton, and former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard.

Pell was found by the child abuse royal commission to have known about allegations of child abuse against clergy during his time in Australia, but failed to act.

Pell, 81, also spent more than a year in jail before being acquitted of sexual abuse allegations.

As archbishop of Sydney, he took an ultra-aggressive approach to survivors who made civil claims against the church in courts.

In the first such case, lodged by former altar boy John Ellis, the church had internally accepted that Ellis had been abused, had independent evidence corroborating his version, and knew of other complainants abused by the same priest. Despite that, under Pell’s leadership, the archdiocese set out to undermine Ellis and vigorously contested his claim, arguing the church could not be sued because it was an unincorporated association that held its assets through a trust.

That led to the Ellis defence, which was used by the church to thwart civil claims lodged by countless other survivors.

“The evidence seemed to be pretty clear that you know [Pell] was the person – he wasn’t just the figurehead, and the person whose name had to be on the court documents and was the nominal defendant, so to speak,” Ellis told the Guardian this week. “He was the person who was driving the whole policy and it definitely was a specific strategy that had the aim of discouraging people from making claims against the church.”

Pell later apologised to Ellis for his treatment, an apology Ellis told the Guardian was contrived and orchestrated.

The royal commission also found that Pell had known of allegations against his former roommate, notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale, when he was involved in a decision to move him between parishes.

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