Trial of a Cardinal: George Pell’s Prison Diary
On June 29, 2017, the day he was indicted by Australian police with historic sexual abuse, Cardinal George Pell was the third most powerful Catholic cleric in the world. In 2014, Pope Francis appointed him to head the newly created Secretariat for the Economy, which had authority over all the finances of the Holy See and the Vatican. After a string of high-profile scandals spanning decades, his task was to modernize and overhaul financial operations and root out corruption. At one point, he discovered more than a billion euros that had not been recorded on the accounts. This was the result of amateur incompetence, not corruption, but he also found evidence of crime that thrives under such conditions. Its investigations have often met with misunderstanding (“we are a Church, not a company”) and with opposition.
The cardinal could have claimed diplomatic immunity and remained in Rome. But, despite his age (77) and poor health, he returned to Melbourne to defend himself and the Church against the charges. The central allegation was that, while Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, he sexually assaulted two choir members after mass in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As one of the boys has since died, the only direct testimony was that of the other complainant, now in his thirties; there was no physical or witness evidence to corroborate the charges and Pell was confident that, given his excellent legal team and the weakness of the prosecution case, he would be found not guilty.
But Pell hadn’t counted on the hysteria his case had sparked. In his introduction to volume 1 of Prison diary (Ignatius Press) George Weigel, the American Catholic theologian, compares quite reasonably the sulphurous atmosphere surrounding Cardinal Pell, especially in his native state of Victoria, to that caused by the Dreyfus affair in late 19th century France. It was a witch hunt and a character assassination spanning several years. Much of the media screamed for his blood, nothing more than the taxpayer-funded Australian National Broadcasting Corporation. Anti-Catholic prejudices have been compounded by the cardinal’s social conservatism and his skeptical views on climate change, an inflammatory topic in Australian politics. Popular musician Tim Minchin released a song calling him “coward” and “scum,” which is still available on YouTube.
The first jury was removed from duty after being stranded for five days, but on a retrial, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The cardinal was remanded in custody and on March 13, 2019, in a live broadcast, he was sentenced to six years, of which he was ordered to serve three years and eight months before being eligible for parole. For Weigel, he bore “the marks of slow-motion political assassination by judicial means.”
the Prison diary opens with Pell’s first night in solitary confinement at Melbourne Assessment Prison and ends in July 2019, as he awaits the outcome of his appeal to the Supreme Court of Victoria. The entries record the daily routine, the weather during the two periods of solitary exercise, which he also uses for daily meditations, his physical conditions (firm mattress, hot shower, air conditioning), food (too much, usually cold), the sounds filtering through other prisoners – often terribly disturbed screams and banging, sometimes a fragment of Muslim prayer.
He is entitled to six books and six magazines, a prison rosary and, after a few days, an electric kettle and a television. Having watched very little television before, he plugged in at 6 a.m. for Mass for you at home, sports and documentaries – Michael Portillo’s train journeys are a favorite. As a Republican, he is taken aback by the media coverage of the royal family. He reads War and peace, solves Sudoku puzzles and manages to limit himself to a few squares of Cadbury chocolate a day. There are regular visits from lawyers and family members, medical appointments, gym sessions and the humiliation of strip searches. Once a week, he receives communion from the prison chaplain, and he reads and comments every day a passage from the breviary; the Book of Job is excellent for settling in prison. There is plenty of time for prayer.
If Cardinal Pell had never expected to end up in prison, he had also not anticipated the quantity of letters from supporters arriving from all over the world, overwhelming the capacities of the prison censor. Many were devout Catholics offering their prayers, some recounted dreams claiming to predict the future, but many of the correspondents were former Catholics or non-believers. “The bark of the Green Left wolf pack seems to dominate justice in your case,” wrote one who described himself as “hardly an agnostic.” The Cardinal’s comments on these letters, as well as the religious texts he studied, reveal his reflection on many subjects, from identity politics to redemption to suffering, to the rules of Australian football (he had been a talented player) and the difficulty of forgiveness. “I have no great difficulty in forgiving my accuser, acknowledging his own suffering. It’s more of a challenge, “he admits,” to forgive those around him and those who destroyed my reputation in the media. “
One question that concerns him is whether the prosecution’s narrative was deliberately constructed in stages. Why did the police wait two years after first receiving J’s allegations before taking action? Why has J changed his story so many times? He reads an article, “Borrowed Testimony,” by the editor of Quadrant, the monthly cultural magazine, drawing attention to the similarity of its case to that of Boston involving an assault on altar boys in a sacristy. Cardinal Pell is also studying a series of articles by Chris S Friel, a Welsh theologian, hitherto unknown to him, who comprehensively deciphered the account of a very negative book by ABC investigative journalist Louise Milligan, published shortly before his trial. All of this contributed to the hysterical atmosphere in which someone had to be held responsible. Cardinal Pell admits that the Church has much to be guilty of, especially in the area of pedophilia, but believes the Australian Church broke its back on the issue in the mid-1990s and regrets not making it public. work of Operation Plangere. until the Royal Commission in 2015.
Book 2, released in April, covers the shock of losing his first 2-1 appeal and the power of Judge Mark Weinberg’s dissenting opinion, which convinced Australia’s High Court to hear a new appeal. He argued that by making the complainant’s credibility the crux of the matter, no proof of an actual crime was required, nor any corroboration of the allegations. All that mattered was that the complainant seemed sincere. On April 7, 2020, the High Court overturned all convictions in a 7-0 decision.
At the request of Pope Francis, the cardinal resumed his work in Rome in October, but another question hangs in the air. Was there a connection between his reform work in the Vatican and the accusations? There is an unexplained € 700,000 transfer from the Vatican department he was investigating to a company in Australia in the years the case was in the works, but no evidence of foul play. There is also an internal recording on which, roughly translated, an official said: “The road has opened before us. Pell is in prison, he is out of the game.
Recently interviewed for the BBC World Service, Cardinal Pell told Colm Fynn that he never despaired in prison because if you believe in God you have the consolation of knowing that peace, harmony and justice will be yours in the Hereafter. Non-believers who read his journal will rejoice that justice has come a little earlier.
A message from the article
We are the only publication that is committed to covering all angles. We have an important contribution to make, which is needed more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout the pandemic. So please donate.