Police broke up a symbolic protest staged by two victims of sex abuse by US clergymen, saying it is inappropriate for Cardinal Bernard Law to take a prominent role in the mourning after systematically covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.

Despite the protest Cardinal Law celebrated the mass, surrounded by dozens of cardinals dressed in red robes, the colour of mourning for a dead Pope.

The protesters, both women, expressed their unhappiness over the church’s move to give Cardinal Law the honour of leading one of the Vatican’s special masses of the Novendiali, the nine days of mourning for the Pope.

Cardinal Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in December 2002 after unsealed court records revealed he had moved predatory clergy among parishes without alerting parents that they had records of child abuse.

More than 550 people have filed abuse claims in Boston in the past few years, and the church there has paid more than US$85m (A$110m) in settlements.

The cardinal was forced to consolidate parishes and close schools to cope with the financial fallout.

“Cardinal Law is being put in a position of prominence which is rubbing salt in our wounds. He has been the most complicit in transferring (priests who have abused children) and covering up sex abuse by priests,” said Barbara Blaine, founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Ms Blaine said the cardinal should never have been asked to preside over the mass, and should have declined once he was asked.

She said other US cardinals should have intervened when neither of these occurred.

Ms Blaine held up a picture of herself as a 12-year old, with brown hair in a bob, which she said was around the time she herself had been abused by a priest in Toledo, Ohio.

“We are the sons and daughters of the Catholic family who have been raped, sodomised and abused” by priests, she told the press conference.

Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels last week said the cardinals’ daily congregations would be used to discuss problems facing the Church ahead of the secret conclave to elect a new pope, which starts next Monday.