This is the Afterword to Volume Three of George Pell’s Prison Journal: Prison Journal, Volume 3, published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco (www.ignatius.com) 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.
This plea for justice appears in the latest Quadrant.
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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