Cardinal Pell’s prison journal should never have been written. That it was written is a testament to the capacity of God’s grace to inspire insight, magnanimity, and goodness amidst wickedness, evil, and injustice.
How and why the author found himself in prison for over 13 months for crimes he did not commit, and indeed could not have committed, is another story, far less edifying. A brief telling of this tawdry tale will, however, set the necessary context.
On April 7, 2020, the High Court of Australia issued a unanimous decision that quashed a guilty verdict and entered a verdict of acquitted in the case of Pell vs The Queen. That decision reversed both the incomprehensible trial conviction of Cardinal Pell on a charge of “historic sexual abuse” and the equally baffling decision to uphold that false verdict by two of the three members of an appellate court in the state of Victoria in August 2019. The High Court’s decision freed an innocent man from the unjust imprisonment to which he had been subjected, restored him to his family and friends, and enabled him to resume his important work in and for the Catholic Church.
Close students of Pell vs The Queen knew that the case ought never to have been brought to trial. The police investigation leading to allegations against the cardinal was a sleazy trolling expedition. The magistrate at the committal hearing (the equivalent of a grand jury proceeding) was under intense pressure to bring to trial a set of charges she knew were very weak. When the case was tried, the crown prosecutors produced no evidence that the alleged crime had ever been committed. There was no corroborating physical evidence, and there were no witnesses to corroborate the charges.
The High Court’s decision to acquit Cardinal Pell and free him was both just and welcome. The vicious public atmosphere surrounding Cardinal Pell, especially in his native state of Victoria, was analogous to the poisonous atmosphere that surrounded the Dreyfus affair in late-19th-century France. Throughout his ordeal, Cardinal Pell was a model of patience and a model of priestly character, as his journal attests. Knowing that he was innocent, he was a free man even when incarcerated. And he put that time to good use—“an extended retreat”, as he called it—cheering his many friends throughout the world and intensifying an already vigorous life of prayer, study and writing. Now that he is able to celebrate the Mass again – a form of worship he was denied for over 400 days – I have no doubt that the cardinal is including among his intentions the conversion of his persecutors and the renewal of justice in the country he loves.
As a citizen of Vatican City, Cardinal Pell had no legal obligation to abandon his work in Rome to return to Australia for trial. The thought of relying on his diplomatic immunity never occurred to him, though. He was determined to defend his honour and that of the Australian Church, which he had led in addressing the crimes and sins of sexual abuse for years.
The Pell prison journal demonstrates that the High Court’s decision freed a man who could not be broken. During his doctoral studies at Oxford in the sixties, young Fr George Pell had ample opportunity to ponder the faithful witness of Thomas More and John Fisher under grave pressure.
He could not have known then that he, too, would suffer calumny, public vilification and unjust imprisonment.