Pell’s journal: overcoming the hardships of an Australian prison

Prison Journal, Volume 1: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal   
By George Pell, Ignatius Press, 2020, 348 pages

Pell was formerly Archbishop of Melbourne and then of Sydney and became a major figure in the Catholic Church. In 2014, Pope Francis appointed him as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican. He subsequently returned to Australia to face the child abuse charges that led to his conviction.

He was jailed in Melbourne in February 2019 and lost an appeal in August 2019 before his guilty verdict was quashed in a unanimous decision by the High Court of Australia in April 2020. George Weigel’s superb introduction tells the “tawdry tale” of how the Cardinal found himself in prison for 13 months “for crimes he did not commit, and indeed could not have committed”.

Weigel’s comments raise important questions about the “fishing expedition” for evidence in advance of allegations, engaged in by the Victoria police, the extraordinary August 2019 appeal verdict and the responsibility of the media, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for the “vicious public atmosphere” surrounding Cardinal Pell, who had the same right to due process as every other citizen.

Keith Windschuttle and Chris Friel have set out the manifold weaknesses in the prosecution case in the magazine Quadrant. Windschuttle’s book, The Persecution of Cardinal Pell, describes “how the highest levels of the police, judiciary and politics in Australia plus lobby groups, compensation lawyers and journalists for major news media, found common cause to persecute, convict and jail an innocent man.”

Clearly, Pell’s international profile, outspoken and articulate presentation of Catholic teaching on life and family issues, and involvement in Church financial reform, made him enemies while legitimate public anger about clerical child abuse was also part of the background to the case. This is the Cardinal’s own perspective: “I was a victim of identity politics, as white, male, in a powerful position, who belonged to a Church whose members had committed vile acts, and whose leaders were believed to have conducted a cover-up until very recently (despite the twenty years of good work and the dramatic improvement in offence statistics since the mid-nineties, at least). The judge’s warnings about scapegoating were overridden by years of hostile publicity”.

This first volume of the journal he kept during his incarceration covers the period from February to July 2019. One senses that it helped him to maintain his equilibrium. The many hundreds of messages the Cardinal received from all over the world also provided tremendous support and are a beautiful aspect of the book – people assuring him of their prayers, asking him to forgive those who wronged him or to offer his sufferings for the sake of the Church, or offering their sufferings for him.

One lady who caught the flu was offering all her sufferings for Cardinal Pell but then developed a series of further health complications. Her prayer then became: “Dear Lord, I am so glad to suffer for him, but … tell a few more people to pray”!

Pell’s preparation of his appeal and his discussion with his lawyers about it feature regularly in the journal. The last entries are quite poignant as the Cardinal was clearly confident of an imminent acquittal, when in fact his first appeal failed in August 2019, and he had to spend many more uncertain months in prison.

Pell follows on an illustrious line of unjustly imprisoned priests and bishops, such as Fr Walter Ciszek SJ, author of the wonderful He Leadeth Me, who spent years in Soviet prisons, St Maximilian Kolbe, who died in Auschwitz, Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary and the Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Nguyen Van Thuan, whom Pell read while in prison. One might also mention the courageous Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis, and the heroic layman, St Thomas More.

Unlike many of those who went before him, Pell was not tortured or mistreated in prison. At one point, he is treated by a chiropodist and comments that there were probably no chiropodists in the Gulag! He also expresses gratitude for his kettle and his TV.

Nevertheless, there were many hardships in prison – the loss of liberty and reputation, the strip-searching and various other humiliations. Pell’s days were often accompanied by the background noise of one or more prisoners nearby shouting and banging the cell door. He was kept isolated from other prisoners for his own protection, but this cut him and the other prisoners off from what might have been life-giving interactions, although he did reply regularly to letters from prisoners. He wasn’t permitted to say Mass but he meditated on the Scriptures, said his Breviary prayers and prayed daily “for the Church victims of paedophilia in Australia”.

The Cardinal is understated about his sufferings and feels that the prison authorities treated him fairly. At one point, Pell suggests that his experience of a pre-Vatican II seminary was good preparation for prison! Warders were often kind, even if prison communications inevitably left much to be desired.

He was grateful for the ministry of a woman religious, Sr Mary O’Shannassy, the prison chaplain, who regularly brought him Holy Communion. As a bishop, he enjoyed close links with friends in Opus Dei and the Neo-Catechumenal Way and maintained those links in prison.

Before reading this book, I was unaware that the Cardinal had a strong Irish-Australian sense of identity. He takes pride in the faith, and the sacrifices made for the faith, of his Irish Catholic ancestors – his mother was a Burke with Cork connections. He expresses disappointment about what he sees as the passive attitude of Irish Catholics in recent times but is not without hope of a Catholic revival in Ireland. There are also warm references to Irish priest-friends and supporters such as Fr Brendan Purcell and Fr Thomas McGovern.

The Irish experience in Australia was profoundly connected to the Church but support for certain Aussie Rules football teams was also part of the package for some. The Cardinal was himself an excellent footballer and might have had a football career if he had not entered the seminary. He supports the Richmond team, watched games on his prison TV and offers expert analysis on them. Nevertheless, “football is a pleasant recreation, and nothing more”.

I found this reflective and beautifully written book absorbing and thought-provoking and I felt uplifted by the courage and faith of Cardinal Pell. He is a man of great intellectual gifts and wide interests and in the journal he ranges over Church history and many contemporary issues. He does not think that Popes should resign and is an enthusiastic reader of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

There is much excellent spiritual reflection on the book of Job and the letters of St Paul, as well as the Gospels. He maintains that “fidelity to Christ and his teaching remain indispensable for any fruitful Catholicism, any religious revival”. Each journal entry ends with a prayer, written sometimes by the author and sometimes by great Christian figures like St Augustine or Mother Teresa or Cardinal Newman.

The book would be helpful to those facing difficult or unexpected crosses in life. Indeed, Cardinal Pell’s own words might serve as a guide to anyone in such situations: “I believe in God’s providence. I never chose this situation and worked hard to avoid it; but here I am and I must strive to do God’s will”.

Tim OSullivan is a teacher in Ireland.


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