Cardinal Pell: Prison Journal is “a historic record and daily spiritual discipline”

“I consider my sentence to jail as both a gift and a grace,” says the prelate from Australia in a Dec. 16th virtual press conference. “But, I hasten to add that I regret it happened, and I wouldn’t have chosen it.”

December 16, 2020 Jim Graves BooksFeaturesInterview 1Print

Australian Cardinal George Pell relaxes on the grounds of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Sydney April 9, 2020. (CNS photo/courtesy Archdiocese of Sydney)

Australian Cardinal George Pell, 79, has released a new book through Ignatius Press: Prison Journal, Volume 1: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal.  Composed of three volumes, the Cardinal offers daily reflections on his conviction and imprisonment in solitary confinement for the abuse of a minor, as well as reflections on the meaning of suffering in the life of a Christian and the divine command to forgive one’s enemies.  Pell maintained his innocence throughout, and after 13 months of confinement, Australia’s high court overturned the conviction on a 7-0 vote and released him from prison.

George Weigel wrote the introduction for Prison Journal, and served as moderator for a virtual press conference held December 16th.  In his introduction of the Cardinal, Weigel opined that Prison Journal was “a book that should never have been written [but having been written] is a grace and a blessing, as it introduces to a world audience to the soul, heart and keen mind of a great churchman.”

Weigel noted that he had known Pell for 53 years, and had thought he’d known him well, but that Prison Journal gave him a glimpse into Pell’s interior life that he had not yet had before.  He said, “The book invites readers to meet the soul of a public man, a rare thing indeed, all the more precious for its rarity, even more impressive when allowed to meet the soul when it is being purified and strengthened through suffering.”

Pell’s perspective of his imprisonment, he continued, was that he was on an extended retreat, “that is exactly what he did, he went on a retreat, in conversation with Our Lord.  The result is this striking book.”

Cardinal Pell served as Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia 1996-2001 and Archbishop of Sydney, Australia 2001-04.  He was made a cardinal in 2003.  He was appointed by Pope Francis as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican in 2014.  He is currently living in Rome.

The following are edited remarks by Cardinal Pell about Prison Journal, made to the press December 16.

Did you believe you would be in prison for the rest of your life, and was your book intended as a historic record or a daily spiritual discipline?

Cardinal George Pell: I never thought I would be in jail for the rest of my life.  I was condemned for six years, with a parole after three years, so I never thought I would be there forever.

I think it is both a historic record and daily spiritual discipline.  It was a historical record of a strange time and I felt that my reflections might be able to help people … I wasn’t sure how much would be published, but I decided to go ahead.  I also found it to be good therapy.  As it has been said, “I understand why [Soviet political prisoner Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn wrote so much.”

What were the conditions of your imprisonment?

Cardinal Pell: I had a tiny cell, about six or seven feet wide.  It had been painted, but you could still see some graffiti beneath.  It had a shower and a toilet, with a bed with a firm base, and a bench.  I had just had two knees replaced, so they gave me a medical chair higher than a normal one.

I was in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.  By international convention, I had to have an hour a day to walk around outside for an hour a day, in a grotty outdoor area.  I was eventually able to go to the gym.

The food was good, but the portions were three times what I needed.  [Saturday lunch’s meat pie was his favorite.]  It was never hot or warm, though, and I like hot food.  I lost a lot of weight.

But I got by.  At different stages, I was quite content.

The prison authorities did not allow you to say Mass.  What was that like?

Cardinal Pell: It wasn’t as bad as it might have been.  I had to make the best of it.  God was with me, and the prison authorities were decent to me, and allowed me to have my breviary and a Christian bible.  I prayed constantly, and received Communion once a week.  I did miss saying Mass, though, especially on Easter and Christmas.

I had a television, and I was able to watch three Protestant Evangelical services.  I critiqued the sermons, and got a lot out of them.  But, none of the three had a liturgical year.  It occurred to me what a wonderful thing the liturgical year is.  It keeps us moving, points us to the last things, and reminds us of the Incarnation and Redemption.  It’s a beautiful thing we’ve taken from the Jews, and we’re the better for it.

What were the most depressing elements of your imprisonment and which were the most encouraging?

Cardinal Pell: The most depressing was the finding by two judges in my appeal that I was guilty [August 21, 2019].  It came as a great shock to everyone on my legal team.  We had thought the prosecution had done very badly on the appeal.  I felt bad for the prosecutor.  [Some said] that the prosecution case was a train wreck.  The upholding of the guilty verdict was the biggest blow.

The encouraging things included the wonderful support of my family and friends, the decency and professionalism of the warders (some were “huffy puffy,” some friendly) and the letters I received from other prisoners.  One fellow in the cell next to me who was a mass murder [James Gargasoulas] shouted out words of support to me as I was going out for my appeal.  It was a small thing, but something for which I am grateful.

I enjoyed having my books, and people sent me many articles.  There was also a wonderful nun who has worked as a chaplain in the jail for 25 years who brought me Communion.

I don’t mean to be flippant, but I even enjoyed my morning chamomile tea and chocolate.  At different stages I was quite content and settled, quite a contrast to the more than 50 busy years I had as a priest and bishop.  My jail time does not give me nightmares.

How do you think your imprisonment affected the general public?

Cardinal Pell: Among my most vivid memories are those of going to court and receiving abuse on many days, sometimes stridently.  Victim groups were cross and angry indeed; they certainly have suffered a lot.  Some were a bit damaged.  But my first preoccupation about being found guilty was that it would cause people to leave the Church.

But I was also heartened by, and did not anticipate receiving, so many positive letters.  I am not comfortable in the hero’s role; I merely tried to do my Christian duty well while I was in jail.

I received a letter, for example, from a mother and daughter, one an atheist and the other some kind of deist, who both came close to faith.  The atheist said she’d prayed to God as if He had existed for her.  Others said they had returned to church because they were incensed by the injustice against me.  God writes straight with crooked lines.

I consider my sentence to jail as both a gift and a grace.  But, I hasten to add that I regret it happened, and I wouldn’t have chosen it.

In the book you write: “I am caught in a struggle between good and the spirit of evil.  I have felt this more strongly of late.”  Can you elaborate?

Cardinal Pell: I believe in original sin, the flaw which runs through everyone’s heart and through society.  There is a regular struggle between good and evil … Every now and again, I felt that the forces against me were using deceptions, misapprehensions, creating confusion or enhancing obscurity.  I felt that there was a whiff of evil about that.

Do you think your imprisonment was motivated by anti-Catholicism in Australia?

Cardinal Pell: That is a leading question.  I am not sure that that is the best way to see it … but from the government down to the police, there was a single cast of mind that was in many cases quite clear about the way they thought things should be going.  Even among the conservative opposition, there was a great deal of woke, green thinking.

It was disconcerting.  We have a great deal of work to do to sensitize people to the value of social conservatism, which I see as basic Christian teaching, which is good for human flourishing and human happiness.

But overall, I was mystified by decisions from highly educated people said to be wise.

Do you believe your work promoting financial reform in the Vatican led to people in Rome bribing people in Australia to secure your conviction?

Cardinal Pell: There is evidence, but no proof.  We have smoke, but no proof that there is a fire.

Were the Victoria police who arrested you duped, or did they do sloppy police work?

Cardinal Pell: I don’t know for certain, but I’m tempted to say that there was a bit of both.  I’ve been told that on three occasions the prosecutors did not consent to the charges going forward, but that the police wanted them to … I’d say that things were sloppy at best.

Have you thought about suing the authorities for unjust imprisonment?

Cardinal Pell: That puts before me a wonderful series of temptations.  But, the short answer is no.  I won’t be doing that.  In other circumstances, I might be tempted to apply to the government for compensation, and in fact some has come through, but I’ve been told that a lawsuit is highly unlikely to be successful.

What did you learn about forgiveness?

Cardinal Pell: You have to keep praying, reading the Scriptures, the breviary and going to Mass.  The New Testament in particular reminds us of difficult challenges we have, like the one to forgive.

Years ago, during a marriage encounter meeting, I heard a talk on forgiveness.  The important thing, the speaker said, was to make an act of the will to forgive, and the feelings follow behind.  So, I made a decision to forgive.  Sometimes I feel a surge of animosity, so I have to keep praying at it.

What thoughts do you have towards those responsible for putting you into prison?

Cardinal Pell: I pray for them.

Were you pleased with the support you received from Catholic leaders?

Cardinal Pell: I might have hoped this person or that person might have done more, but overall I have no problem with what the bishops of Australia or Vatican bishops did.  The Catholic authorities everywhere wanted to respect the rule of law.  Pope Francis himself was respectful of due process publicly, and privately expressed to me that he believed I was innocent.  My bishop [of Sydney], Anthony Fisher, was once a lawyer and was very effective and appropriate in his comments.

Are we doing enough for victims of clergy sexual abuse?

Cardinal Pell: That would depend on the time, place and where you are.  Since the mid-1990s, we’ve been moving in the right direction in Australia.  We’ve had hardly any cases in this century, with most occurring before the 1990s.

You are living in Rome.  Will you be taking another position in the Vatican?

Cardinal Pell: I will be turning 80 next year, so I will not be going back into formal work.  With my level of energy, that is right and proper.

Will you be returning to Australia?

Cardinal Pell: Of course I’ll be back.  I spend time there every year.  I spent five wonderful months in Australia after my release with little hostility.

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