Cardinal George Pell has spoken to press about his new book and his unjust persecution.
To present his Prison Journal: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal, published with Ignatius Press, written as a diary during the cardinal’s more than 400 days in prison, prior to Australia’s High Court, unanimously voting that he was innocent, a Zoom virtual meeting was held yesterday between Cardinal Pell, Zenit, and other journalists throughout the world.
Prison Journal addresses how Cardinal Pell, in his own words, was unjustly convicted of sex abuse until his appeal was unanimously overturned by the Australian High Court, and his 404 days in solitary confinement.
Certain the charges against him were false, Cardinal Pell voluntarily left Rome for Australia to stand trial. The trial ended in a hung jury, but when the case was retried, Cardinal Pell was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. On April 7, 2020, after 59 weeks in jail, the High Court in Australia overturned his conviction and Cardinal George Pell was finally free.
Moderated by the biographer of St. Pope John Paul II, George Weigel, he began stating: “As I said in my preface, the book we are are discussing today never should have been written.”
However, the fact that it is written, the Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center continued, “is a blessing” and a “grace” since it shows “the mind and soul of a great churchman.”
“I have known Cardinal Pell for 53 years, and while I thought I knew him rather well over those five decades, here I was really able to know him even better. Here,” Weigel said, “one gets to know the real George Pell, not the caricature perpetrated by many Australian media.”
Cardinal Pell’s faith and values that have empowered him his entire life, Weigel observed, enabled him to face “an unjust conviction and imprisonment with courage and grace,” reminding that Cardinal Pell took ‘Be Not Afraid’ from John Paul II as his episcopal motto.
The Australian cardinal expressed to some prior to the imprisonment that he imagined what he would be doing as sort of an “extended retreat,” which—George Weigel says—is exactly what he did: “a retreat where he remained in conversation with God.”
“A gross injustice, turned into a great Christian witness, and witness to the power of faith,” he said.
Without giving his own speech, the Cardinal immediately made himself available to journalists’ questions. One asked, that with the possibility of having spent the rest of his life in prison, did he write this to have historical record of your experience, or as a spiritual discipline for himself.
I Never Thought I’d Be in Jail Forever
“I never thought I’d be in jail for the rest of my life. I was condemned six years, had parole after three. Never thought I’d be there forever…” He did mention how he did seriously think about stopping when his appeal was lost.
Two reasons why he wrote the book, the former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy noted, were to have “a historic record of a strange time,” and “second to that, and perhaps more importantly, precisely because I thought my reflections would be able to help people, not just those in jail, going through tough times.”
Asked about the expressions of support he received from all over the world, he admitted: “I never imagined I would receive all these letters,” expressing joy when learning that his experience has led some to come back to the Church and even atheists started praying to God, as he learned from one mother and her daughter who wrote him.
Someone asked about his view of how anti-Catholicism in the judicial system in Australia factored into his case.
“That is a leading question. I am not sure that is the best way to see it,’ he said, while admitting there is a certain common mentality, which, at times, “can be disconcerting…”
“I am mystified by the decisions of some highly educated people said to be wise. But that is another question…”
No Problems With Vatican’s Response – Pope Francis’ Support Privately
Someone asked about how he interpreted the Vatican’s response and approach following his initial conviction.
Immediately pointing out that “Catholic authorities everywhere set out to respect the law and authorities,” Cardinal Pell said: “And by and large, I have no problem at all with what the Vatican or Australian bishops did.”
“Pope Francis was very respectful, as was the Vatican, of due process. But no secret to me, and to me privately, he expressed his belief in my innocence and he supported me…”
The cardinal noted that Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney’s support was very effective and “I am very grateful for it.”
Some asked about his time in Rome thus far and whom he has met. He acknowledged that among those he met included his successor to the Secretariat for the Economy, Fr. Guerrero Alves, SJ.
Fr. Guerrero, Cardinal Pell said, “seems capable and honest. I hope he will get all support he needs.”
Clarifying he has met with many, but not Cardinal Becciu, Cardinal Pell said he did visit Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. “I hope in the future will be Doctor of the Church,” he said.
Pressed on his comments suggesting the need to have protocols for emeritus popes in the Catholic Church, the Cardinal suggested that while there are not issues between Francis and Benedict, the possibility of problems in the future could be a problem.
“I haven’t found a single person here in Rome who doesn’t think there must be protocols for a pope who retires. Obviously we love the popes, we have great respect for them. But the needs of the situation — the unity of the Church — is on another level that goes beyond a personality.”
“I think the unity of the Church is not something automatic. We have seen the Orthodox….”
Someone asked if he would be considering a potential role in the Vatican in the future.
“It is not an option [that he works again at Vatican]. I am months short of being 80. The retirement age is 75. I won’t be going back into any formal work.” He also mentioned his energy level, saying it was “exhausting fighting for financial reform here.”
“I am grateful some of the truth is coming out. At least in those days, working for financial reform in the Vatican was very difficult,” he said.
The Act, the Will to Forgive
ZENIT’s Senior Vatican Correspondent recalled how in the journal he says: “The decision to forgive is a bit like the act of faith,” noting it must be continuously nourished. She asked him his advice on how can one nourish forgiveness, and advice for those who likewise could be falsely accused who could struggle to forgive.
“First of all, you have to keep praying. Praying the breviary. Even going to Mass. The New Testament keeps needling away at us, much more than the Old Testament, reminding us of difficult challenges like the difficult challenge to forgive. I remember years and years ago from a marriage counseling meeting that one couple was talking about forgiveness between husband and wife. And they said the important step is to forgive, to make an act of will, to forgive. In many cases, the feelings can follow…”
He humorously recalled the words of Joyce Brothers, American psychologist and television personality, who said: “My husband and I have never considered divorce… murder sometimes, but never divorce.”
“First you decide to forgive and then the feelings often follow. And every now and again, I feel a surge of animosity, and I suppose on that you have to clamp down on it.”
“You cannot forgive without faith and you need to keep praying,” he said.
Knew God Was With Me
Asked about the cardinal not being able to celebrate Mass for more than 400 days, he said: “For me, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because I realized there was no way on earth It was going to happen. I had to make the best of it. I knew that God was with me…”
“The prison authorities,” he said, “were decent to me and they let me have my breviary from the very first night. I had a Bible. I prayed constantly, received communion once a week. Obviously, I missed saying Mass…especially for the Feasts… Easter, Christmas, Holy Week, Pentecost…” He even amusingly mentioned that on Sunday mornings sometimes he would watch some Protestant Evangelical sermons and critique their sermons.
Asked if all said and done, he sees this experience as a grace, he said: “God writes on crooked lines.”
In the book, the cardinal noted that each day, he prayed for victims of abuse. Asked if in his opinion, does the Church pray enough for abuse victims, and what could the Church do better in this regard, he suggested that to a certain extent, this depends on where. “In Australia,” he said, there “is a renewed emphasis on it following the Royal Commission.”
Stressing the need for counseling services to be available, and for financial reparation, the Cardinal also remembered the many victims who have kept their faith.
“I know because many wrote me,” he said: “Many are not hostile toward the Church despite the things that have been done to them.”
Saying “we need to do our best,” Cardinal Pell noted that “by and large, we are moving along in a positive direction.”
“One point is important: In Australia, we broke the back of the problem, stopping these problems in the middle of the mid.90s. Hardly any of the cases were in this century. Most were before the 90s.”
Smoke But No Proof of Fire
Associated Press asked about a recent interview where the cardinal perhaps made a connection between his prosecution in Australia and his work in the Vatican on financial reforms.
“We do not have proof of a connection in this sense that money from Rome was used to in any sense pervert the cause of justice. I have never claimed that. And I have gone out of my way to make that quite clear.”
“What we can say is that one of the monsignors who has been accused–according to the Roman papers, these stories started in Rome–has said that he has seen evidence of money going from Rome.”
“I myself am quite confident,” Cardinal Pell continued, “that money did go from Rome to Australia in that time. But I have no proof of where it finished up. So, I have said, there is evidence, but no proof. Another image I have used is that there is smoke, but we do not have proof of fire…”
Someone asked about his most depressing and good memories during his ‘retreat.’
Joking “I have some Irish blood, so let’s start on most depressing,” Pell said that most depressing “was the judges on the supreme court in Australia saying I was guilty. The feeling was that the prosecution had done very badly, as they had no evidence.”
“There were many good things: Wonderful support of my family and friends, letters I got, also from other prisoners. There was a mass murderer next to me and he wished me well on day of my appeal… People sent me lots of articles, many intellectually stimulating things. The chaplain, she did marvelous work, and has been in the jails for 25 years.”
Another journalist asked if there were one thing you miss or look back upon fondly from his retreat.
“Hmmm… interesting question… Well…. I used to sign off each night with a cup of chamomile tea and two rows of Cadbury chocolate. And I certainly enjoyed that.”
Asked by an Australian journalist if he would consider lawsuits against the State of Victoria, and against Australian media for defamation, Pell said: “You are putting before me a series of temptations.”
“The short answer,” he said, “is no. We’re not doing that. I have been told that chances of success of getting compensation from government is very unlikely. .. So the long and short answer is no.”
Another Australian asked if Pell believes the police in Victoria were duped or sloppy.
“Honestly, I do not know. Probably a bit of both,” he responded, saying: “Things were sloppy at best.”
Asked would you ever return to Australia, the Cardinal without hesitation said: “Of course, I’ll be back. I’ll be back every year.” He recalled some very pleasant time spent in Australia since his ordeal.
On some memories in jail, he recalled watching the Tour de France. “I really enjoyed that. The French countryside is beautiful. I lost a lot of weight. The food was rather good, but the portions were much more than I needed.” He noted it was English style, with plenty of meat, starches and three vegetables in three colors.
“The high point was a meat pie, (English specialty). Being able to eat that when I got out of the gym, was quite wonderful.”
A journalist pointed out that on page 191, you mention good appointments of President Trump to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Trump, Cardinal Pell noted, “is pretty controversial, noting how he even has said once he can be a “bit of a barbarian.”
However, the Cardinal continued, he has made “some splendid appointments to the Supreme Court and many other appointments.”
Calling President Trump an “unusual” president, Cardinal Pell said he “was unusual also because he kept promises: the economy kept rolling along, good nominations, he did not enter into any wars, he even sent a Christmas card. Can you imagine that?”
Expressing his appreciation for Trump supporting the March for Life and life, Cardinal Pell said: “he struggled to keep Christian values in public life.”
“Overall, I think Trump has made positive contribution of the Christian cause,” he said.
On the other hand, the Cardinal admitted, “I am not sure he is being sufficiently respectful of the political process. It is no small thing to weaken public trust in great institutions.”
Cardinal George Pell, formerly Archbishop of Sydney (2001–2014) and of Melbourne (1996–2001), Australia, was appointed in 2014 by Pope Francis as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican. He also served on Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals.
Cardinal Pell received a Licentiate of Sacred Theology from the Urbanianum University in Rome, and his DPhil in Theology from the University of Oxford. His previous books include Test Everything and Issues of Faith and Morals.
The Cardinal’s ‘Prison Journal’ contains his reflections not only on the pain of being falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, but also on the meaning of suffering in the life of a Christian and the divine command to forgive one’s enemies.