A remarkable drama played out on the world stage, via the Australian justice system, in 2019 and 2020, as Cardinal George Pell fought accusations of historical sexual abuse—described by Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., as “totally and demonstrably false sexual abuse charges”—that resulted in Pell’s imprisonment for over a year.
In fact, Cardinal Pell spent 404 days in solitary confinement. As the charges were levied against him and the case went to court, the world watched this cardinal of the Catholic Church face down the twists and turns of the Australian justice system. During the initial hung jury, the subsequent conviction, and the appeals process which dragged on seemingly interminably, Pell maintained a journal, the first two volumes of which have now been published by Ignatius Press (Volume 1 and Volume 2), with a third soon to come.
Cardinal Pell, who turned 80 today, has long been a prominent figure in the Church, both in Australia and around the world. As a priest, then later as auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop of Sydney, a cardinal, and eventually Prefect of the (newly-founded) Secretariat for the Economy and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisers, he has wielded a tremendous amount of influence, and been a staunch defender of orthodoxy and orthopraxis in the universal Church.
Cardinal Pell recently spoke with Catholic World Report regarding the allegations, the case, the second volume of his Prison Journal, and some of the important issues facing the Church today.
Catholic World Report: I followed your case as closely as I could from here in the States, and was very glad to see that justice was done.
Cardinal George Pell: So was I, Paul! So was I.
CWR: Rather than rehashing the events themselves (people can always read the articles, or read your journals), I’d like to talk more about how you were reacting to everything that was going on. What was going through your mind as the conviction came down, and then later on as that conviction was upheld?
Cardinal Pell: Well, I didn’t think it was make-believe or a dream. I realized very much that it was real, it was deeply unfortunate, and I had to do the best I could to cope with it. Now, I’m a believer, I’m a Christian, I’m a Catholic. I had absorbed what I think is the incredibly advantageous Christian teaching about suffering, that good can come from suffering, that we believe that we are redeemed especially by the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God—this is a fundamental point of departure in approaching life.
CWR: As the process continued from that initial hung jury, through the conviction, and the upholding of the conviction, would you say you felt abandoned by Australian justice, or were you always confident that, in the end, the truth would set you free?
Cardinal Pell: No, I wasn’t confident of that, especially after the two most senior judges in Victoria found against me. I found that patently inexplicable in terms of the evidence. And I was fearful that the judges were simply going to close ranks in defense of the earlier jury decision, and persist in the mistake. I even briefly contemplated not appealing to the high court. But my friends and lawyers were strongly against that, and so was the head of the jail. He had a long chat with me—he was a very blunt and forward man, and I appreciated his advice. He said that the judgment of the dissenting judge—Weinberg—which is a magnificent piece of work—was a marvelous foundation from which to launch the appeal. And he was quite right.
CWR: As the process went on, did you ever feel hopeless (in the Christian sense of the virtue of hope), or did you always trust in God’s providence that, no matter the outcome of the judicial process, everything would ultimately be fine?
Cardinal Pell: I think it was Chesterton who really explained the very clear difference between the Christian virtue of hope, and human optimism. I always had the virtue of hope: I knew, and deeply believed, that in the end all will be well. I knew that I was innocent, not guilty of the crimes, and I knew that was the case in God’s eyes. I knew that I had the obligation to do everything I could to establish that in the eyes of my brothers and sisters. But at different stages—especially after the appeal was knocked back—I wasn’t absolutely sure that common sense, justice, and respect for evidence would prevail.
CWR: As so many people—including your defense—have demonstrated, the case against you was manifestly problematic, demonstrably impossible, but even still, you were convicted. There has been much speculation about this, but let’s get your thoughts. Do you think there was some sort of orchestration behind the scenes, seeking charges against you, and resulting in a conviction?
Cardinal Pell: That has to be a possibility. The people who have studied the matter very, very closely are convinced there was some sort of conspiracy. I don’t have proof of that; I don’t know. Some people feel the complainant was coached—certainly his story developed and changed. He changed his story 24 times. So I understand more clearly there is a difference between something that is possible, something that is probable, and something that can be established, and I can’t establish this claim that there was a conspiracy. But I’d say it’s on the high end of possibility.
CWR: Have you always kept a journal, or was this something that you started during your imprisonment?
Cardinal Pell: Every now and again I did. I was chairman of Caritas (the overseas development and aid organization of the Catholic Church in Australia) for nine years. So on nearly all my overseas trips I kept a diary, and I’ve published some of those. It’s a bit unusual for cardinals to be put into jail, so I thought it would be an interesting historical record. Of course, writing is very good for therapy. I discovered that many, many people have written from jail. We could start with St. Paul.
CWR: During the time of your imprisonment, did you hear from the Holy Father and your brothers in the hierarchy? Did you have a sense of support from your brother bishops, brother cardinals, and the pope?
Cardinal Pell: Yes, I certainly did. Pope Francis sent a message of support; Cardinal Parolin; Pope Benedict wrote a beautiful message of support; the Archbishop of Sydney; the Archbishop of Melbourne; Cardinal Dolan has been a great support through all this. It’s very important that the Church is not seen as lining up automatically with the people who are accused; that it is not seen as lining up automatically against the complainants. But no, I never felt abandoned by the Church leadership, and I’m very grateful for their kindness and solidarity.
CWR: You were Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, overseeing and digging into the financial dealings of various nooks and crannies of the Holy See. Part of the reason that secretariat was founded was to clean up corruption, and weed out some of the more nefarious elements. Because of you position at that time, there’s speculation that some in Rome wanted you out of that position—whether because you were challenging them, or putting their financial dealings into jeopardy—and that they may have even conspired with Australian officials to bring this case against you, to remove you from that position. Would you care to comment on that speculation?
Cardinal Pell: Well, first of all, I think the basic reason that I was appointed as Prefect for the Economy, was to introduce modern methodology, proper procedures that are common in all good businesses, so that we had a good idea and could see really where we were at the Vatican. Before we took over, very few people (if any!) would have known accurately what the financial position was.
As well, of course, we were fighting against corruption. Now, I don’t know the answer to your question. What I do know is that a seven-figure sum of money went from the Secretariat of State to Australia. We’re not quite sure where that money finished up, we’re not quite sure why it was so large, or what the purpose of it was. It might have been quite innocent. But we don’t know that, and we might never know. But we can’t say that the story is closed. We don’t know.
CWR: In recent weeks and months, there have been news reports of some significant developments in the efforts to clean up that financial situation, including the trouble with Cardinal Becciu, as well as Gianluigi Torzi and others. Based on that, or anything else you’ve seen recently, do you think real progress is being made in cleaning up that financial corruption? Do you think we’re making headway?
Cardinal Pell: Yes, there’s no doubt about it that we’ve made headway. No doubt about it at all. We have a pretty good idea about what happened with that Sloane Street property in Chelsea in London. Progress has been made, bigger progress would have been made if we had been able to stop that procedure before it turned into a disaster.
CWR: In light of all this, does seem progress is being made in that cleanup?
Cardinal Pell: Yes, and there is a possibility that charges will be laid, and a court proceeding will take place. I believe that a new, enlarged courtroom has been constructed in the Vatican. But what will come of that, I don’t know. Whether these people who have been sidelined will be charged, we will see, and then we will see what the story is. But everybody, certainly these people, have a right to due process, to their day in court, where they can present evidence and establish their innocence, if that is the case.
CWR: You know better than a lot of people the importance of due process!
Cardinal Pell: I do. I believe in the principle that a person is innocent until he or she is proven guilty.
CWR: As you know, the Church is facing many challenges, particularly in the Western world: Germany’s flirtation with the synodal path and the recent blessing of homosexual unions by priests in Germany; countries that are historically Catholic such as Ireland are allowing greater freedoms for abortion, “gay marriage”, euthanasia; in Australia, the practice of the faith is declining pretty rapidly. What do you think is at the root of this trend in the Western world?
Cardinal Pell: Well, that’s a very big question. It’s the primary question. I think one of the first things every bishop must realize is that one of the most striking features of Catholic life in the Western world is decline. In different countries it’s proceeding at a different rate for different reasons. There have been many, many reasons. Sometimes our problems are self-inflicted—we don’t teach what Christ teaches, and we try to do “better”. When Christianity is radically liberalized, it just empties people out of the Church. We’ve seen that in Belgium, Holland, and Quebec.
There’s a wonderful book by Mary Eberstadt called Adam and Eve After the Pill. It’s certainly worth reading; it’s one of the best things about the revolutionary consequences in attitude, not just in a diminished number of children, but showing how the link between sexual activity, love, and new life has been broken.
Another very powerful influence is internet pornography. For example, we now have statistics from Japan which shows that about a quarter of women between 18 and 24, and a goodly percentage of the men, no longer have any interest in physical, sexual activity. It is something that amazed me, it wasn’t something I anticipated at all. In the 1980s, with quite a number of the feminists, as a result of the access to pornography there would be more violent crimes (rapes, sado-masochism, and so forth). That does not seem to have been the case at all. It’s gone in the opposite direction, that fantasy has substituted for real life. It’s a little bit like a rerun of the myth of Midas. Everything Midas touched turned to gold: he could neither eat, nor drink, nor copulate. So with pornography, it’s a major, major problem, and not just for Christians.
CWR: You’re probably aware of the big question of Eucharistic Coherence. There are so many prominent politicians, including President Joseph Biden, who are baptized Catholics and who parade their Church affiliation around as some sort of badge of honor, but then explicitly promote things contrary to Church teaching, contrary to natural law (abortion, homosexual marriage, euthanasia, etc.). There is some debate among the American hierarchy as to how to address that—whether or not these politicians should be denied Communion, whether or not some sort of public education should be done. Would you care to comment on that?
Cardinal Pell: Well, there are a number of issues there. I know the American bishops are considering these questions, and it’s not just their concern, because they are part of the universal Church. But I think, as a minimum position, these public figures who are publicly supporting abortion, euthanasia, I think they should be strongly discouraged from receiving Communion. They should be asked to examine their consciences, because it’s difficult to see how you can support such legislation and be faithful to the basic Christian teachings.
CWR: St. Paul says that if you present yourself in an unworthy state, you bring condemnation upon yourself. Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco and some of the other bishops have begun to speak out about it; it’s a thorny issue.
Cardinal Pell: Yes, it’s a thorny issue. I’ve read much of what Archbishop Cordileone has said on the subject over the years. I am a great admirer of his teaching, because I think it coheres exactly with the Tradition. You see, the distribution of Holy Communion is not like offering a guest a cup of coffee, a gesture of friendship or welcome, no matter who the guest is. It is a statement of faith that the recipient believes that they are receiving the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And for that reason, Saint Paul has listed the dispositions that are necessary for the appropriate reception of communion. We have a lot of catechesis to do on the reception of Communion. In Australia, it’s become much too free and easy. It’s seen like offering a cup of tea and a biscuit. And that’s a problem.
CWR: Over your many years of priestly and episcopal ministry, you’ve served in many different types of roles. Based on that experience, what sort of challenges do you see the Church facing? And more importantly, what signs of hope do you see for the future?
Cardinal Pell: Oh, I think there are many, many signs of hope, especially among the young believers and the young clergy. You see, people have to decide very explicitly, even during high school, what is their attitude to the regular watching of pornography. When they leave school, are they going to live as Christians even though they might do it imperfectly? Overwhelmingly, the minority of young people who have decided to practice their faith seriously are overwhelmingly orthodox. They are passionate, and open to transcendence. No generation has been able to distract themselves so readily as young people today, and there is a reaction against that.
So the radical liberals have few to no followers among young Catholics, at least in the western world. And that provides an enormous boost and a firm basis to go forward, perhaps in a smaller way. But life is full of surprises. It’s possibly that the pressures against Christianity will continue to increase; time will tell. But the basic fidelity and orthodoxy, faithfulness and prayerfulness of the young Catholics, is a great, great sign of hope.
Note: Those who want to contribute to the fund to help cover Cardinal Pell’s legal expenses can do so here.
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