Time for a Public Reckoning in the Pell Case


This is the Afterword to Volume Three of George Pell’s Prison Journal: Prison Journal, Volume 3, published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco ( and Freedom Publishing Books in Melbourne.

A grave injustice was reversed when the High Court of Australia vindicated Cardinal George Pell and restored him to liberty on April 7, 2020. What the world could not have known then, and what readers of all three volumes of Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal have now discovered, is that the cardinal put his 404 days of imprisonment, most of them in solitary confinement, to good use. He prayed, not least for victims of clerical sexual abuse. He read, studied, and deepened this thinking about the contemporary situation of the Catholic Church, about his native Australia, about reform in the Vatican, and about a troubled world. He participated in the work of his defence team. And he produced a prison memoir that is a shining testament to the power of faith, hope and charity to see a man through the most difficult of circumstances.

Thanks to these journals, and thanks to the dignity and equanimity with which he has borne himself since his release from prison (not least in an hour-long interview with Australian broadcaster Andrew Bolt), Cardinal George Pell has become a spiritual hero to many. That this is to the consternation and fury of the cardinal’s many enemies is a source of considerable satisfaction to his friends. But not, I think, to George Pell himself. For as these journals have revealed, he is a much bigger man than his persecutors and his rabid critics. He holds no grudges. That they do is to their further shame.

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Cardinal Pell is moving on with his life. As he marked his eightieth birthday on June 8, 2021, he could look back on eight decades of adventure, accomplishment, and sorrow overcome. He is not a man to spend large amounts of time looking in the rear-view mirror, however. His days of service to the Church are by no means ended, and his status as one of Catholicism’s most influential elders has been enhanced, not least by these journals. The cardinal is not looking back. Others should, however.

For friends of Australia who are not caught up in the maelstrom of politics Down Under, it is difficult to understand why there has not been a public reckoning with the travesties of policing and prosecution, and the failures of the justice system in the State of Victoria, that were laid bare in the Pell affair.

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The Persecution of George Pell 

Why has there been no state or federal investigation into the Victorian police’s “Operation Tethering”, in which, as commentator Michael Cook put it, the police went “trawling for complaints against a public figure”? Surely the public interest would be served by knowing whether personal animosities, political grudges, corruption, or all of the above were involved in an otherwise inexplicable fishing expedition.

Why has there been no state or federal investigation into why Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions took to trial a case that was implausible to the point of impossibility? What role, if any, did the crowds baying for George Pell’s blood have on that decision? In Victoria, is it now the case that unhinged mob rage is sufficient to bring to trial a case in which the prosecution has no case? (And speaking of mobs, who was paying for those professionally printed placards visible outside the court during the Pell trials?)

Within Victoria’s justice system, has there been any consideration of whether the trial judge’s decision to put a media blackout on the cardinal’s trials was prudent? I am not alone in believing that the trial judge ordered the blackout in the hope of keeping the trials from becoming a media circus. Nonetheless, the blackout ensured that the most lurid anti-Pell stories continued to circulate in the Australian press; that the cardinal’s defenders were largely if not totally muzzled; and that the public did not know that the prosecution’s case had been shredded by the defence in the cardinal’s first trial. That trial ended in a hung jury that seems to have been overwhelmingly in favour of acquittal. But no one knew any of that, which could not help but have an effect on the retrial.

Within the Victorian bar, has there been any reckoning with the fact that the two appellate judges who upheld the cardinal’s conviction at his second trial were eviscerated, legally speaking, by the High Court, when it unanimously decided to quash the guilty verdict Judges Anne Ferguson and Chris Maxwell had upheld and enter a judgment of innocence in the case of Pell v The Queen? Judge Mark Weinberg’s dissenting judgment in favour of Cardinal Pell’s appeal seems to have decisively influenced the High Court. One can only hope that others on the Victorian bench have learned something about legal reasoning from their colleague Mark Weinberg—and about the importance of standing up to the mob and the media when justice demands it.

Then there is the matter of Louise Milligan, an employee of the publicly-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation, whose lurid and fanciful book Cardinal helped set the persecution of George Pell into motion. Why is a tax-supported employee of a state broadcasting entity permitted to publish rubbish and then promote it at the public expense? Why has there been no parliamentary inquiry into the ABC’s professional standards and practices in general, and about Louise Milligan’s jihad against George Pell in particular?

No one knowledgeable about Australian public life over the past several decades will deny that Cardinal Pell was a lightning-rod for all sorts of culture-war issues, especially those involving the sexual revolution and climate change. But is the state broadcasting company in Australia to be permitted to persecute a public figure because his views do not comport with the woke shibboleths of the Australian media? And if the ABC can commit calumny after calumny against a public personality it dislikes because of his politics, how does that distinguish the ABC from state-funded media in the People’s Republic of China or Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

The Catholic Church, in both Australia and the Vatican, has much to reflect upon in the light of the Pell case.

In Australia, George Pell—who as Archbishop of Melbourne was the first bishop in the country to institute a serious program to deal with clerical sexual abuse and provide aid to its victims—became a scapegoat for the failures of other Catholic bishops to deal effectively with these grave sins and crimes. Thus it was more than a little disconcerting that Cardinal Pell received so little public support from his brother bishops. The statement by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane on the cardinal’s failed appeal in August 2019 was particularly cringe-inducing, with its waffling call to Australians to “accept” the judgment of the appellate court while the case played out in its final phase. That the dissenting judge Mark Weinberg had the courage to say that the appellate judgment made no sense and the president of the Australian bishops’ conference could not bring himself to do the same is, at the very least, noteworthy.

George Pell’s robust Catholic orthodoxy and his relish in challenging the cultural Left and its political allies made other Australian bishops nervous, even gun-shy, when it came to fighting the Church’s battles in the public square—a task admittedly made harder by decades of duplicity and worse in the handling of clerical sexual abuse cases by previous generations of Australian bishops. The answer to that sorry history cannot be cowering before the mob, however; nor can it be to turn Australia into a Church of Catholic Lite on the German model. The only way forward for Catholicism in Australia is to be completely transparent about sexual abuse (commensurate with the obligations of sacramental confidentiality) and to display candour and forthrightness in explaining, defending and promoting the settled truths of Catholic faith. In all this, his brother bishops of the present and the future can learn lessons from Cardinal George Pell.

Church authorities in Rome also have much to ponder in the aftermath of the Pell case. The pusillanimity of the Vatican Press Office throughout the cardinal’s trial and appeals was, in a word, appalling. Did the world really need to hear repeatedly about the Holy See’s confidence in the Australian justice system, when it was clear to any fair-minded person that it was the Australian justice system that was on trial—a system that barely escaped with its reputation intact, thanks to the High Court finally giving George Pell the justice he had been denied in his trials and at his appeal?

Then there is the question of a possible relationship between the persecution and prosecution of Cardinal Pell and his work in Vatican financial reform. Much remains to be explored here—and it must be explored, if the Holy See is to rebuild a reputation for financial probity. That reputation has been seriously damaged in recent years. And while the revelations of incompetence and corruption in Vatican finance have been very costly in terms of the Vatican balance sheet, they have been even more costly in terms of the Church’s primary work of evangelisation. If there are links between financial corruption in Rome and the prosecution of George Pell, they should be identified, not for the sake of retribution, but for the sake of the Church’s credibility and its purification.

The publication of this final volume of Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal will bring a certain measure of sadness to the cardinal’s friends and admirers. Walking this Via Crucis with him, day by day, has been for many a kind of ongoing spiritual retreat. Entering prison, Cardinal Pell said to friends that that was how he planned to live the experience of incarceration: as a retreat, an opportunity to grow closer to the Lord. By recording his experience of that remarkable journey of grace and then sharing it with others in these volumes, he has expanded the range of the priestly ministry to which he dedicated himself more than half a century ago. And through these diaries he has, without a doubt, brought others closer to Christ.

That is how apostles live. Faced with shipwreck, like Paul in Acts 27 and 28, they turn what seems to be disaster into an occasion to expand the Church’s evangelical mission. That is what Cardinal George Pell did in prison, and we may all thank him for it.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His two most recent books, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable, were published by Ignatius Press. He and Cardinal Pell have been friends since 1967

12 thoughts on “Time for a Public Reckoning in the Pell Case

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    As long as Daniel Andrews is premier of Victoria, there won’t be a proper enquiry into anything – as with Hotel Quarantine, so with Cardinal Pell, Lawyer X, the Victorian Legal System…….

  • RB says:

    Mainly because Mr. Pell is, as you describe him, a prince of the Church. Had he been “Hanna the Harridan” it would never have happened.
    It is the woke left’s attitude to honesty and reality that is at issue, Mr. Pell is a mere victim of the oppressor class.

  • Brian Boru says:

    Prior to Pell’s trial and appeals I would not have been ranked amongst his most ardent supporters.
    My position changed though when I saw an egregious miscarriage of justice. My opinion of the man is now enhanced by the manner in which he has carried himself through all this.
    Before the HC appeal I commented to a friend that Mark Weinberg may well have written the HCs decision. Thankfully we have him and a HC that is not yet become whatever Ferguson and Maxwell are.
    As to Ferguson and Maxwell, they have my contempt.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    I have always thought this was not specifically about Archbishop Pell. More to the point it is about an effort to change the law. I have read that in the case of litigation of a sexual nature that is presented to the law only one in 100,000 results in prosecution. It is fairly obvious why this is since there are only two people involved. I think I do understand the effect of this inescapable reality is to generate great passion and angst. The law argues one is innocent until proven guilty and the proof needs evidence. If it is allowed for people to be punished on the say-so of just one other then we will be headed for a great deal of grief and injustice.

    That precisely is what is being pushed for. The claim is that a particular group of people always know the truth they will never lie or be mistaken. Questions are was it consensual or those that underage did it happen? Only the High Court saved us from a world where any of us could be sent to jail on the say-so of another without any other evidence. Unfortunately there is considerable success in such twisting of the law for instance teachers must have a the top of their mind the threat their students pose to them. If stupidly for one reason or another they have a consensual relationship then the law will jail them. In our society this is how it should be but just jailing is not acceptable. There is a vigilantism that wishes to punish them evermore. They are not allowed to start a new life but pursued in every facet of their life. Using social media and organised pressure this is happening.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Mike O’C, it is worth noting that as soon as the case left Victoria (to the High Court) it was made clear that Pell was innocent and should really not have been charged in the first place. Prior to that, in Victoria, we had the police begging the public for evidence against Pell, officers of the court appearing on the ABC in support of Louise Milligan and her politically motivated lies, and appeal court judges who clearly don’t understand the basic principle of innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The only rays of hope that the Victorian legal system isn’t irredeemably incompetent and corrupt were the majority of the first jury and Justice Mark Weinberg.
    Questions about Vatican financial involvement in the accusations against Pell, and the (ongoing) relationship between the accuser and former senior members of the Victorian police remain unanswered. However, as I noted above, as long as Daniel Andrews is premier of Victoria, no meaningful attempt to answer those questions will be permitted in Victoria. It is worth asking why that is.

  • Sydgal says:

    There are so many unanswered questions in the investigation and prosecution of Cardinal Pell, one would hope there would be some sort of public inquiry in order to avoid errors and deficiencies in the future. The Cardinal Pell/Victoria Police October 2016 42 minute Rome interview in the public domain provided valuable information about the Cathedral protocols –  the “hive of activity” in the Priests’ sacristy, Pell being accompanied by his MC, altar servers processing into the room straight after mass, Cathedral staff with duties to secure sacred items, the concelebrants in the room, money collectors coming and going. Why were many of the people mentioned in this interview not contacted by the Police? How did the case proceed to committal and trial? Why did the jurors and judges attend the Cathedral on a quiet weekday rather than Sunday solemn mass?  In the course of the investigation, surely the Police became aware of choir procession practices and then walked the route to work out if the timing was possible? The moving animation which might have given some idea of the choreography could not be shown at the trial. And in the 12 March 2020  High Court video, why is the information about where the complainant located the wine so varied and confusing? Some of the prosecutors received promotions in 2020/21.

    According to Cardinal Pell’s Vol 2 Prison Journal, the complainant told prosecutors that not only did he not want the second trial to proceed but that he thought getting at least one person to believe his story in the hung jury was as good a result as he was likely to obtain. A journalist has since confirmed that they were aware of this but could not report it at the time. 

    Why did MPs launch or attend high profile book events by Louise Milligan and Lucie Morris-Marr? Was it appropriate for the Vic Premier to tweet “I see you. I hear you. I believe you” the day of the High Court decision and for this to be retweeted by the former Vic Attorney General and several other MPs? Why was the co-founder of the Eros Association – now an independent MP – outside the County Court conducting TV interviews saying she was vaguely disappointed that the sentence was not long enough but that survivors felt vindicated because someone believed them? In her recent autobiography she claims that she was the first person to call for a RC.

    Why was “public order” not maintained outside the Victorian Courts when the mob seemed to rule?  Some of the professionally produced posters were also used outside hearings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2012 – 2017). Many of these were about the financial Redress Scheme,  however, according to a Ballarat art exhibition video,  the current President of Care Leavers Australasian Network commissioned and displayed the artwork outside the Courts eg, Justice for Witness J, Pell Go to Hell, Pell-O-Phile, Prisoner 666. A CLAN representative attended a function at Kirribilli House when the Royal Commission Terms of Reference were first announced and Royal Commissioners and NSW MPs attended a CLAN social function in early 2018.  Under the RC it seems compensation could only be awarded for sexual abuse, however there have been calls for the Redress Scheme to be expanded to physical and psychological abuse. As at 12 Nov 2021, the Redress Scheme has received just over 12,000 applications. In 2015 a RC Report estimated 60,000 redress participants.

    Regarding the RC, how certain findings could be made in a case study where the relevant 1970s Vic Police information was missing from the website exhibits and the police officer’s additional statement could not shed any light on the matter? The RC website also includes a number of disclaimers including “…The information the person provided was not evidence, the person was not a witness, and did not need to take an oath or affirmation, although they were expected to tell the truth. Nothing in this story is a finding of the Royal Commission and any views expressed are those of the person, not of the Commissioners.” 

    After the RC redacted reports were released in May 2020, Witness J’s lawyer spokesperson gave an ABC Radio interview and said that civil claims against the Catholic Church would progress more smoothly through the Courts as the RC had found that senior clergy knew about the abuse. She said she wanted the Church to contribute funds to mental health services, accommodation support, and drug and alcohol services as the cost on tax payers had been enormous in terms of looking after people the Church had abandoned. 

    It is very disappointing that the ABC has provided very limited/no coverage of some of the recently published books about Cardinal Pell’s case, yet it gives primetime TV and radio coverage to the books of ABC journalists and their favoured media commentators.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece George and you are quite right of course. Cardinal Pell is a great and good man and Cardinal. He has been spat on, defiled and abused and has kept his cool and his faith through it all, while knowing he was completely innocent. He also is on record as not bearing any ill will against those, who have obviously not spoken the truth .It’s plainly obvious why he was attacked, and not others, he is of the right, not the left and he is very,very good at standing up for the church and common sense and reason, and debating those on the left. He also knows his science & metaphysics, as well as economics, which seems to leave most of those on the left in the dark. In my mind this has been a political attack against a great, good and very knowledgeable man of the church and of the right, so while we have left wing people in power and their appeasers and fellow travellers, not only in politics but also the media, they will use their usual ploy of ignoring completely anything that goes against them, merely treating it with silence. They will be allowed to get away with it, solely due to the left in the media who seem to have infiltrated right through pretty well all of it in this country these days.. Nevertheless I still hold out hope that there will be an effective inquiry.

  • Ceres says:

    A great synopsis of a sordid event.
    What an indictment of so many players including the Victorian police (nothing new there) the DPP, the blackout by the Victorian trial judge who guaranteed the rumour monger mill, the two Victorian Appeal Judges whose reasoning skills were shown by the High Court to be wanting and who seem to have suffered no shaming, Louise Milligan and the get Pell mainstream media, to name just a few.
    The heroes Mark Weinberg, the High Court, some journalists such as Andrew Bolt and the dignified George Pell who in the face of a nightmare retained his sanity.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    No doubt the Pell case will go down the ABC memory hole to be replaced by another series of allegations.
    Who will it be next?
    Last week the ribbon banner at the bottom of the ABC screen told me that the Emeritus Pope had been named as covering up a priest pedophile case in Austria in the ? 70’s.
    It was lovingly repeated every few minutes.
    You can feel the love here.
    No doubt they will ‘reveal’ that it is ‘extraordinary that he could not have known the gravity of the abuse’.
    No doubt we will hear more.
    Perhaps witness J may give a corroborative statement, as he was there too?

  • Adam J says:

    I want to know if it can and does happen in other states but due to the lack of a high-profile accused has gone unnoticed.
    I bet it does.

  • Michael Waugh says:

    There is a silver-lining in the persecution of Cardinal Pell and that is that it was so obviously a persecution. The full facts were not available until Weinberg J’s judgment, but were clear then (although I, for one, was not able to confidently predict the High Court outcome, so dismayed I was at the success of evil to that point). The wonderful, simple, short, emphatic, unanimous High Court judgment was followed by multiple ABC journalists expressing their displeasure at that decision and exhorting their followers that it was still legitimate to believe that the Cardinal was guilty. Dan Andrews, Premier of the State of Victoria, where an innocent man had been wrongly incarcerated, made it crystal clear that he would not accept the verdict of the High Court, and he thereby foreswore his oath of office. It thus became pellucidly clear that these people have no allegiance to basic civil liberties or the rule of law. Hatred of their political opponents takes precedence. The evil in their hearts was bared to the world. The converse, of course, is that the Cardinal’s dignity and forbearance in the face of his tormentors, especially in contrast to their conduct, has become an inspiration to all right thinking people, whatever their political affiliations. And there’s another lesson. The despicable trawling by the police, their egregious failure to properly investigate the false allegations, the laying of charges that would not be warranted if it had not been a witch-hunt, the absurd jury finding, the ridiculous reasoning of Maxwell and Ferguson, they all reveal how quickly and astonishingly large swathes of the population can be brain-washed by relentless propaganda. I know we should realise this from multiple historical examples, but we naively believe, many of us, that that won’t happen again, or not here. The Pell scandal is a salutary reminder.

  • whitelaughter says:

    What surprises me is that the Liberals haven’t launched an inquiry. With both a state and Federal election this year, a Federal investigation would be propaganda gold.

    Mike O’Ceirin – we won’t deal with rape as an issue until we deal with the lawyer problem. The legal system is set up to make lawyers money, and nothing else.

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