My friendship with Cardinal Pell

Like so many Catholics around the world, I mourn Cardinal Pell because of what he meant for the Church, because of who he was, and what he stood for. But I’m also grieving in a different way.

Cardinal George Pell gives an interview to EWTN News in Rome, Italy, on Dec. 9, 2020. (Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.)

Catholics around the world mourned a Churchman, a bishop who was for decades a pastoral and intellectual force for the Gospel — they mourned Cardinal George Pell, who died unexpectedly Jan. 10.

I, too, mourn Cardinal Pell because of what he meant for the Church, because of who he was, and what he stood for.

But I’m also grieving in a different way.

I’m mourning because Cardinal George Pell was my friend. And while I believe that he died in the grace and friendship of God, and will enjoy soon the beatific vision, I know that I will miss my friend George.

So will the friends of Pell around the world, who knew him and loved him.

I first met Cardinal Pell in 1996, soon after I had arrived in Rome to begin my service to the Holy See as an official in the Vatican Congregation for Bishops. The Congregation (now called a dicastery) is the Vatican department which assists the Holy Father in his governance and collaboration with the Catholic bishops all over the world.

The Congregation for Bishops, not unlike many of the dicasteries in Rome, was organized according to language groups. I was one of three priests who served in the English section, which meant that I helped respond to the needs in the territory I was assigned, and when the Holy Father chose new bishops, I helped to do some of the organizational work behind the scenes.

My desk at the congregation included Australia, the English speaking dioceses of Canada and all the US dioceses west of the Mississippi River.

At the time, there were 28 dioceses in Australia, in addition to the Military Archdiocese for the Armed Forces.

In my first six weeks at the Vatican, I spent most of my time studying and researching the geography and the ecclesial cultures of Australia and Canada, countries that were foreign to my experience as a young American priest.

During that time, someone suggested that I reach out to Bishop George Pell, the young auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was told he held a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford and that he could help me to learn more about Australia. I also learned that he was a former world-class athlete — he had played Australian-rules football, which is a very tough game!

I heard that Pell had a jovial sense of humor and a bigger-than-life personality, and that he had a great love for Cardinal John Henry Newman, my own patron, and my spiritual mentor.

I remember thinking to myself, “I gotta meet this guy!”

Well, I did meet him.

Through a friend, I contacted Bishop Pell in Melbourne, and I asked if we could meet if he ever came to Rome. I told him I’d love to learn more about Australia.

Soon after, Bishop Pell told me he was coming to Rome, and suggested that we meet at Babington’s tea room, next to the Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome.

I had never been to “the Babington,” but I knew it was the famous café where all the 19th century English poets used to hang out when they were living and writing in Rome. It is right next to the house where the great Romantic poet John Keats had died, and was a favorite haunt of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I will never forget the day we had tea.

We were to meet at 4 p.m., “high tea” time for Anglophiles.

I got there a little early and found a table that looked out on the Piazza di Spagna. From my table, I watched a towering figure lumbering across the piazza in a Roman collar and a brown tweed jacket.

“That has to be Pell,” I thought to myself.

Sure enough, he walked into the café and right over to my table. I stood up, but before I could address him, he said, “Cheerio Jim, my name is George Pell.” There were no formalities or proper introductions, but instant affability and friendship.

That was the beginning of my 26-year friendship with His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell.

I later learned that the 6-foot, 4-inch Cardinal Pell had actually signed a contract to play professionally with the Richmond Football Club in 1959, but decided to abandon a promising athletic career to study for the priesthood.

He entered the seminary for his own home Diocese of Ballarat, a small country diocese in the metropolitan province of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, in the state of Victoria.

He attended a regional seminary, Corpus Christi College, Werribee, and then was sent to Rome for his theological studies at the Propaganda Fide College. He was ordained a priest in 1966, and was later sent to England, where he earned a Ph.D. in Church history in 1971 from the University of Oxford.

When he returned from England, he acquired a master’s degree in education, from Monash University, Melbourne, and he spent many years in Catholic education.

After serving several years in parishes and schools, Pell was named in 1985 the seminary rector of Corpus Christi College, his own alma mater.

Two years later he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Melbourne. He served as auxiliary for nearly 10 years, until he was named the seventh Archbishop of Melbourne in 1997.

In 2001, he was transferred, becoming the eighth Archbishop of Sydney. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2003 by Saint John Paul II and participated in both the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict XVI and the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis.

Cardinal Pell’s rising influence in Rome was confirmed when, one month after the election Pope Francis, the new pope appointed Cardinal Pell to the Council of Cardinals — an elite council of nine cardinals, the C9 as they were called, charged with the responsibility of advising the pope on administrative and financial matters in his efforts to reform the Roman Curia.

In 2014, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Pell to head the newly established Secretariat for the Economy, a Vatican office that was given authority over all the financial activities of the Holy See and the Vatican City State.

During my 10 years in Rome, I had many happy and memorable occasions to dine, have tea and cultivate a wonderful friendship with Cardinal Pell during his many visits to the Eternal City from “down under.” He served on many Vatican committees and commissions during those years, including the Vox Clara committee, which he chaired and oversaw from start to finish, as it worked to complete the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

In 2006, when I finished my tenure at the Vatican and returned to the United States, he invited me to visit him in Sydney, where I spent two glorious weeks as his guest at St. Mary’s Cathedral. I traveled throughout New South Wales and Victoria on my own, visiting the various sights and sounds of a country that I had known only on paper up until that time. I have many wonderful memories of that trip.

After returning to my home Diocese of Wichita and being assigned as pastor of a parish and school, I received a call from Cardinal Pell asking me if I would be willing to take one of his transitional deacons to serve in my parish. Pell wanted to give him an “America” experience of pastoral ministry. I happily said yes.

In the months that deacon was there in 2008, I was named an auxiliary bishop in Denver. In fact, the young Australian deacon, who is now a parish priest in Sydney, served as the deacon at my episcopal consecration in Denver. He was a reminder, as I became a bishop, of my friendship with Cardinal Pell.

I returned to Sydney a second time in the summer of 2008 for World Youth Day. By providence, a group of young people from the Diocese of Lincoln joined up with my youth group from Wichita, for a private Mass with Cardinal Pell in a side chapel of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. After the Mass, Pell gave us all a little talk on “all things Australia,” including kangaroos and koala bears!

Cardinal Pell has always been a champion of the Catholic faith and an outspoken defender of traditional Church teachings.

He has always had a love for true and authentic Catholic education, and I am told that the Catholic school system in Australia owes a huge debt of gratitude to Cardinal Pell and his leadership. He made notable efforts to promote ecumenism and unity among people of all faith backgrounds. He was not afraid to “enter the fray,” as it were, by publicly debating those who were diametrically opposed to the Church. But he was always a gentleman, affable and kind, always maintaining his good cheer. I shall never forget his wry sense of humor, his warm smile and a kind of twinkle in his eye when he was telling a story.

In 2017 Cardinal Pell was charged with several counts of historical child sexual assault, which were alleged to have happened when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

He categorically denied these charges, but took a leave of absence from the Secretariat for the Economy, to return to Australia. In 2018, an Australian magistrate ruled there was sufficient evidence for Cardinal Pell to stand trial on some counts, while several charges were dismissed.

In August 2018, Pell went on trial, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Three months later, a new trial began, and he was found guilty on five charges of child sexual abuse. Although the verdict was sealed, Cardinal Pell was removed from the Council of Cardinals shortly thereafter.

In February 2019, after the prosecutors opted not to try Cardinal Pell on other assault allegations, the jury’s verdict was publicly announced. In March, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

But Pell maintained his innocence. And even people who disagreed with everything Pell believed were critical of the case against him. The charges against Pell were believed by many people to be implausible — logistically, and practically. He was convicted on the testimony of only one accuser, with no corroborating evidence presented. Pell was insistent that he hadn’t done it — and in court, he presented witnesses who agreed.

Cardinal Pell served 404 days in solitary confinement before the full-bench of the High Court unanimously overturned his convictions in 2020. Australia’s highest judges concluded that the jury’s decision to convict Cardinal Pell was unreasonable.

It is important to note as a Church we need to continue to address every credible instance of abuse brought forward, investigating to make sure the victims’ voices are heard and justice is served. However, in the case of Cardinal Pell, the Australian justice system, through a lengthy process, ultimately determined the accusations against him were unfounded.

When Pell became the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he soon after created a commission to investigate the claims of the victims of abuse. We as a Catholic Church need to continue to be vigilant to make sure wrongdoings are addressed, acknowledged, and corrected, and done so in accordance with the work of a legal system, in search of the truth, for all involved.

Cardinal Pell kept a journal while he was in prison, and chronicled his time. He traveled to the United States in November 2021, on the occasion of the publication of his three volumes of “Prison Journal” by Ignatius Press.

I met up with the cardinal in Phoenix and enjoyed a wonderful lunch with him. His wry humor, serene smile and the twinkle in his eye were still there. He spoke about the kindness of the guards, the contemplative nature of those days, and how he became a pretty good “free throw” shooter over those 404 days.

I had written to him in jail, and he thanked me for those letters.

Cardinal Pell was in prison when I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and had to take a leave of absence from my own diocese for 11 months. I told him that I would often think of him in solitary confinement, and offer up my own sufferings for him.

I told him that his witness and perseverance in faith gave me hope during the darkest time in my life.

I told him that just hearing he was there, living day by day in solitude, gave me hope.

After multiple appeals, when I heard the news that he was completely exonerated and acquitted of all charges and released from prison, I experienced an indescribable joy, which I think had a huge role to play in my own recovery and mental health.

Reading his prison journal is like reading the stuff of saints.

The last time we were together was in Rome, Oct. 2, at Ristorante Scarpone, a favorite outdoor restaurant on the Janiculum Hill. We had a wonderful three-hour pranzo (lunch) where time seemed to stop. We talked about the permanent things, about hope, and how wonderfully strange and mysterious this world is. We talked about how we are all pilgrims on this earth, just passing through. We recalled together the wonderful words from Newman when he says that “invisible things” in life are more real to me than the visible things, for the visible world is passing away before our eyes.

May the Lord rest the good soul Cardinal George Pell.

Cheerio, George. I will miss you.


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About Most Reverend James Conley 2 Articles
Most Reverend James Conley is the bishop of Lincoln, NE.

4 Comments

  1. Sounds like Cardinal Pell was not just a great Bishop, but a great guy to be around.

    I’m sorry you have list your friend Bishop Conley. Hang in there…till you meet again.

  2. My sympathy for the loss of your friend Bishop Conley.
    What a tragic thing to be falsely accused and tried by public opinion. I suppose as Christians we shouldn’t be surprised by that, scripture is pretty clear warning us what we may face. But how much more painful when our friends and family experience persecution.
    May Cardinal Pell rest in peace. God bless him.

  3. Thank you bishop Conley for your note about your true friendship with Pell. The fact that you do not elevate Pell to the Joy of heaven, speaks a great sense of honesty, integrity, and true friendship!
    We need persons like in the Church!

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