“I have not felt on the edge of an abyss, though I do slump a bit.” So writes George Cardinal Pell, in the thirty-fourth week of solitary confinement for crimes that, after a further twenty weeks or more in his cell, seven High Court judges would unanimously overturn. We read the journal knowing of the overturning, but we are accompanying George Pell through the highs and “slumps” of what was, but a brief time before, an unimaginable incarceration. But as the chronology laid out in the opening pages reminds the reader, the shadow cast over Pell began long before, when on June 29, 2017, he was charged with multiple historical sexual assault offences.
The significance of that particular day will pass most readers by, but for George Pell, as to every bishop who stands in the apostolic succession, it is charged with a deep meaning, for it is the day set aside to honour the martyred saints, Peter and Paul, flawed yet chosen first leaders of the Church. I found myself wondering if, before the police pounced, the Cardinal had had the opportunity to keep the Feast at the Altar, the sacred and daily action at the heart of his priesthood he would soon learn to live without.
Volume Two has the same format as Volume One, with the helpful explanatory notes on each page delivering the reader, especially the non-Australian reader, from endless hunting through appendices. This is a trilogy for publishing purposes, and to understand not only the important legal journey, but what is to my mind the more interesting inner journey of this enigmatic man who has been judged and judged and continues to be judged, it is necessary to start with Volume One. If the presentation style is consistent, this second volume has a different feel, and the clue to that difference is reflected in the ominous subtitle, The State Court Rejects the Appeal.
In his entry for August 18, three days before the Appeal Court decision, Pell begins with the cautious optimism reflected in the first hundred or so pages of the volume: “I am hoping this Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time is my last Sunday in jail.” This optimism is born not simply of his innocence and his trust in the judicial system, but also in the confidence that his lawyers have presented a strong case that the evidence presented to the second jury did not warrant a guilty verdict. In dramatic contrast, the entry for the Wednesday after the court found against him begins, “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord make haste to help me,” and ends with the short heartfelt plea, “Jesus mercy. Mary help.”
That day with its moving entry marks a turning point in the saga, and while the Cardinal’s ability to “forge ahead” (the chapter title for the following week) becomes evident, for a season the tone of the journal changes.
This review appears in a recent Quadrant.
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One subtle example. It has been his custom to conclude most entries with a pertinent quote. Wisdom from the Fathers of the Church, found in his beloved breviary, his chief companion on this solitary journey, and from the impressive storehouse of his own memory garnered over many years of study and prayer, both feature strongly. There are prayers shared from the Divine Office and there are words of simple wisdom or encouragement from the constant stream of supportive letters he receives. The change of mood as he struggles to come to terms with dashed hopes for freedom and the possibility of a further three years inside, the wondering about the worthwhileness of an appeal to the High Court; the impact on his own and the Church’s reputation, and the making sense and the making fruitful of the injustice and suffering (an important theme throughout), is reflected in a marked increase in his use of the Psalms.
The Psalms of David are at the heart of the rhythmic prayer of Jews and Christians as they make their journey “through the changes and chances of this fleeting world”. They tell of every human emotion: sometimes raw, calling on God for his pity from the depths of despair; sometimes daring to question the wisdom of God; sometimes wonderfully celebrating God’s majesty; sometimes exultant with praise; and sometimes describing the heaviness of soul that can overtake the believer, calling on that soul to trust.
Through the journal we get a daily glimpse of prison life with its routines, small kindnesses and petty inconveniences, interwoven with Pell’s reflections on faith and on life in church and state beyond the prison. In his calling on the Psalms we get a clue to the inner life and spiritual struggle of the man locked in his cell, a man who in ordinary times does not easily wear his heart on his sleeve, and who over the years has learned the necessary detachment of the celibate heart.
Readers who attend deeply to the text will perhaps be surprised to discover a gentle as well as an impressively strong human being with a resilience born less of hardness of heart than of discipline and trust in Divine providence. Don’t expect to sense his tears on every page or hear him raging. I can only remember one reference to his being angry, when he was spat upon by a nameless fellow prisoner. Anger was soon dissipated by prayer. There is scant evidence of self-pity or resentment, though one wry and rueful comment is revealing. In one of his reflections on the financial scandals in the Vatican which feature quite considerably in the second half of this volume, he doubts a lurid press report that a dodgy Cardinal in Rome might be thrown under the bus: “I shall believe that when I see it. Cardinals are not like laypeople, except in Australia.”
After almost forty years in England it was only when I returned to Melbourne five years ago that I began to realise the division, passion, vehemence and even hatred that the name “Pell” elicits among otherwise reasonable Australians. Even as I was reading this volume during a plane journey, a steward passed by, announcing that she was collecting last bits of rubbish. Noticing what I was reading, she thought it entirely appropriate and acceptable to say, “That’s rubbish. I’ll take that away.” Pell’s is an unwanted household name, the antithesis of a “national treasure”. Many would like to bury him, whatever the High Court might have decided.
To my shame I said nothing rather than challenge her, my silence reflecting that of most bishops, none of whom I suspect, like me, has ever been left alone in any church, let alone a busy cathedral, for six minutes, the claim at the heart of the prosecution case. The silence of us Anglican bishops on this matter, and on the general disdain for the Cardinal in the public sphere and in Anglican circles, should be a rebuke to us. Reading of the encouragement his postbag became in his isolation, and as one who had intended to write, but never did, I was heartened to read that he had at least received a letter from the retired Anglican Archbishop of Sydney.
Pell’s conservative views, his loyalty to the Church and her teaching, and his fearlessness in speaking out on the moral questions which so many Australians now regard as matters of personal choice, made him a hero to some and a public enemy to others long before the terrible realities of child abuse hit the headlines, sending the churches and their leaders into a time of defensiveness, shame and self-doubt, from which they are struggling to recover. This is especially so in his home state of Victoria, where a version of secularism has all but removed the religious worldview from the table of discussion about how society is to be ordered, and the contributions of the Church to social cohesion go unnoticed and undervalued, a trend that was in evidence long before the awful revelations that emerged from Pell’s home diocese of Ballarat.
The apparent disdain of Victoria’s Premier towards the High Court decision was shocking for its lack of statesmanship. More worrying still is the danger of such a view undermining the judicial system. Further, it encourages the idea that whatever the High Court might say, Pell was guilty, and even if he wasn’t, we owed it to victims of abuse that someone in high places be punished for the crimes and failures of the Catholic Church; that the Cardinal should indeed “be thrown under the bus”.
An understandable, even necessary bias towards vulnerable complainants can create a blindness to the paucity and inconsistency of evidence, and to the dismissal of evidence in support of the defendant as inherently unreliable. A right and proper assurance that complainants will be listened to with the same attention as defendants, however high or mighty the latter might be, has been replaced with the mantra “We will believe you”, with the inevitable concomitant that an accused will not be believed. Reflection about this and the toing and froing of lawyers for consultation about progress become central as the journal continues and the Cardinal and his team prepare to go to the High Court. The next volume will see that journey through.
The diminishment of imprisonment is a great leveller, and one is reminded of this as Cardinal Pell admits he is writing as much for personal therapy as with the thought of publication; as he delights in the arrival of a lukewarm pie and in the saving of his chocolate bullets until later; as he expresses disappointment in not receiving a phone call or being able to make one; as he rejoices in the little triumphs of throwing four goals through the basketball ring in the gym and his “excellent” form reaching 250 shots on his forehand in ping-pong; as he sings hymns in his cell to help deal with distractions in prayer; and as he spends more time watching television than at any other time in his life. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions and gentle critique of Sunday morning worship services beginning with Catholic Mass for You at Home through to evangelical preachers and the generally reviving Songs of Praise.
He becomes as dependent as any ordinary churchgoer on someone else’s faithfulness to bring him Holy Communion. Sister Mary, who has walked the corridors of Her Majesty’s prisons for over twenty-five years, is one of the background heroes in the journal, as are the writers of those several thousand letters, an unprecedented postbag in the history of the prison service.
Through those letters, wrought by his diminishment, grace is discovered. Which ordinary Christian would in normal circumstances have the courage to write their little snippets of advice and assurance of prayers to a Prince of the Church, to one generally used to being the initiator and silencer of conversations, the giver of advice, and the bestower of sacramental grace? Which Prince would warmly receive them? His waiting for and counting of letters reminded me of a child receiving and counting lollies. They are wonderfully important, whether they bring news of friends or developments in his case, or of the progress or otherwise in dealing with the shenanigans of the Vatican, or the simple heartfelt prayer of a Christian on the other side of the world.
Open-minded readers whose opinions have been formed by what often appeared to be Pell’s unsatisfactory detachment in media interviews following all those appalling revelations, or by the works of investigative journalists, may be surprised as they warm to the author and discover in these pages so much more of this down-to-earth yet perplexing prelate.
But in truth, I doubt my air steward will read it, and neither will the Premier of Victoria. Nor, sad to say, will many of my Anglican colleagues. And that is surely something of a pity.
Prison Journal, Volume Two: The State Court Rejects the Appeal
by George Cardinal Pell
Ignatius Press and Freedom Publishing, 2021, 319 pages, $39.95
Lindsay Urwin OGS is an Anglican bishop. Born in Australia, he was the area Bishop of Horsham in the Diocese of Chichester, in southern England, from 1993 to 2009, and was Administrator of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham from 2009 to 2015. He was appointed Vicar of Christ Church, Brunswick, in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, in 2015 and is bishop to the Anglican schools in the diocese.