Cardinal Pell on What He Learned From His Time In Prison: ‘The Christian Package Works’

In his first extended interview with a Catholic publication since his release, the Australian cardinal discusses what he recounts in his ‘Prison Journal,’ which will be published Dec. 16.

Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace on March 17, 2016.
Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican's Apostolic Palace on March 17, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovsky / EWTN News File Photo)

For Cardinal George Pell, being falsely imprisoned and suffering great trials for the past three years taught him that Jesus’ teaching “on many things is absolutely true” and that “the key to life is found in Christ’s words.”

Speaking to the Register Dec. 1 in his first lengthy interview with a Catholic publication since his acquittal and release from prison, the former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy said the Catholic faith “helped keep me going.” 

The Australian cardinal was speaking ahead of the release of the first volume of his book Prison Journal, to be published by Ignatius Press in paperback on Dec. 16. The volume covers the period from Feb. 27, 2019, when he was remanded in custody, to July 13, 2019, a month before Victoria’s supreme court upheld his conviction on appeal.  

Cardinal Pell left the Secretariat for the Economy in 2017 to face questionable charges in Australia of sexual molestation of two choirboys in the sacristy of the Melbourne cathedral in 1996. After a mistrial in 2018, a second trial unanimously convicted him, and he was sentenced to six years in prison. He ended up being incarcerated for 404 days until Australia’s High Court unanimously acquitted and released him on April 7 this year. 

In his interview with the Register, Cardinal Pell discusses a number of passages from his journal, including how he coped with the vicissitudes of the legal process, his attitude towards his accuser, whom he wholeheartedly forgives, and how he drew inspiration from thousands of letters of support and the example of great saints such as St. Thomas More.  

“I don’t think I ever despaired,” he says. “Certainly you go up and down.”

The Register spoke with the cardinal in his Vatican apartment. 


Your Eminence, in your journal you give a vivid sense of what it was like for you to be found falsely guilty and imprisoned, but what do you hope publishing the journal will achieve? 

That’s a good question. Well, first of all, I’m hoping it’ll help people understand Christianity a bit better, to help Christians who might be in a situation that’s very difficult. I mean, there are many motives for writing it, not the least of which is therapy. There are other motives for getting it published, which I wouldn’t have done if nobody was interested. Also, I suppose to try to see that this doesn’t happen again in Australia too quickly to somebody who’s from a very unpopular group, espouses politically incorrect views and is swept away by the tides of hostile opinion.


We often hear these days that as Catholics we are entering a dark time of persecution in the West, even if it’s currently a “soft” persecution. Do you see this book as an aid to dealing with this?

I’m always tempted to be a sentimental optimist so I hope [the times are] not as bad as that. One of the things that I might have even mentioned in the journal and that struck me was the very big number of people who wrote to me — 4,000 letters from many Catholic parts of the world — felt like that. They felt that pressures were increasing. 

The only other thing I would say, and I’ve been thinking a little bit about this, is that nobody wants persecution of any type, but opposition’s not necessarily bad for the Church. As a matter of fact, a few people wrote to me who had lapsed from their religion, who said they were so upset by the way I was being treated that they returned to the practice of religion.


Would you say our usual state as Christians is to be in a state of persecution, as some argue? 

Well, I’m a great supporter of [Emperor] Constantine. I have a great sympathy for the ordinary person who’s in the middle of the road, not fantastically religious, and I would much prefer the sociological currents take them towards God, rather than take them away, and towards genuine community, a fair game for everyone, rather than making them selfish and hostile.


You said you wrote every day and that you disciplined yourself to do that. Did you always intend for your journal entries to be published, or was the main motive to preserve your own sanity?

I’ve written diaries like this, most of which haven’t been published, especially when I was traveling as chairman of Caritas [Australia]. I was chairman for nine years. I’m very proud of being associated with that. I went to some quite exotic places, so I wrote those up. They’ve never been published. I was aware that people might be interested. A lot of things have been written in prison, and still, today, when fewer and fewer people write, they type up their things. A lot of prisoners write for therapy, and I can understand that. 

My final point is that I’ve written quite a bit. I’ve got six or seven decent-size books that I’ve written. I’ve often found writing solid work, hard work, because I always had a job and had to do it either as one small part of the job or generally in my free time. But I found it surprisingly easy to write when I was in jail. Now I think the literary form is congenial to me. For 13 years I wrote a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, which is the biggest circulation paper in Australia, and it’s a slightly similar genre. Nonetheless, I found it easy to write.


You handwrote everything?

I handwrote everything.


You filled the journal with details of your daily activities and your personal thoughts, your prayers, but what did prison life teach you as a whole? 

What did it teach me? That’s a good question. I think one is that the Christian package works. I believe that Jesus’ teaching on many things is absolutely true, that the key to life is found in Christ’s words. I tried, however imperfectly, to follow that teaching. All in all, I managed to come out not too badly.


What reflections did you have about suffering and redemption through your own? Did you see the whole ordeal as a special and perhaps privileged means of sharing in suffering?

I think I’m too soft and comfortable to consider it a privileged means. I was aware that it was an opportunity that I should approach in belief as a Christian. I think I did that.


It gave you an insight, a deeper insight into suffering, would you say?

I think that would certainly be true. I don’t want to overestimate the difficulty of my situation. I mean, it wasn’t as though I was at the Hilton or the Dorchester or anywhere like that. Especially in the MAP, the [Melbourne] assessment prison and the solitary areas where I was for eight or nine months, some of the people were — my fellow prisoners — terribly, terribly damaged and anguished, angry and terribly, terribly unhappy people.


Could you engage them? 

No, not in the slightest; you couldn’t. In many cases, even if you could engage them, in terms of standing there with them, it would have been very difficult to effectively help them. It was difficult work; and the warders in that particular section, they were well led, and, overwhelmingly, they did a good job.


Were any cruel to you, some of the prisoners?

One spat on me at one stage ... that’s described probably in a later volume. I could hear, though, a few people in the cells, as you will see, call [my name] out, condemning me. Sometimes you’d have somebody defending me. One long-term prisoner said it’s the first time he’s ever heard in prison a priest who was in for pedophilia being defended by some of the prisoners.


You made an interesting point, I don’t know if it’s in the book, that it was interesting some could see your innocence, whereas the legal system didn’t, and that, in effect, the natural law was still present in their hearts. 

In an imperfect way perhaps, but, yes, that is interesting. Some people have very definitely chosen the wrong side amongst the prisoners, but I think even they are aware of the choice between good and evil.


At one point you say: We know that God is never cruel to us, no matter what is allowed to happen. God is not like a superior who abandons us or refuses to continue supporting our best efforts, who turns against us. God is always with us, turning our suffering to good, uniting it with Jesus’ suffering and death. God is always listening, especially when he is silent.” Was it that solid belief in a good God that kept you going? That even though you were innocent, you believed it wasn’t God who was being cruel to you, but it was being allowed to happen for whatever reason?

Yes, I think that’s certainly a dimension to it. But for somebody who believes in Christ and Christ’s promise that he will return, there will be an ultimate judgment. The English mystic Julian of Norwich expressed the belief that ultimately all will be well, that things will balance out. That’s a great consolation.

Another consolation was that it was a terrible blow when I was found guilty, a worse blow when the supreme court in Victoria found against me — an extraordinary decision in any sense. I really half-seriously considered not going on with my appeal. Then I thought if the judges are just going to close ranks and just make stupid and thoroughly mistaken decisions, it cost a hell of a lot of money for my friends to have to raise for me to go ahead and make the effort. If it’s going to be an expensive charade, I’m probably better out of it. 

Good people talked me out of [dropping the appeal], not least the boss of the jail. I don’t know; I mightn’t have needed much persuading. It is for a Christian a great consolation to believe in God’s forgiveness, but [also] to believe that the really important judgment is the one to come. Your reputation, your honor, and the damage to the Church — well, I was very vividly aware of those dimensions, and that was one reason why I was so pleased that I was vindicated.


Yes, you say in the journal, “We need God in the next life to set those things right” — a reference to injustice against the innocent. 

I think it’s a great argument for theism, because there’s not ultimate justice for many, many people in this life, although everybody’s blessed to some extent. Many are blessed in ways that I might not appreciate. But by the same token, there are many people who suffer. Think of all the slaves, all the people who are badly treated, modern-day slavery and certainly in the old days. God will balance that out in the next life.


Did that concept of God’s justice keep you going?

It’s one of the things that did. My Catholic, Christian beliefs helped keep me going.


At one point you write: “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.”

Well, actually, I spoke recently to a group of seminarians. I only made three points, and one of those, the first point I made, was precisely that: to accept that we are where we are. I’d like to be elsewhere. I wish this hadn’t happened. I wish there’d been no pedophilia scandals, wish it’d been handled better, but it hasn’t. I wish the situation with the Church was different, but it isn’t. So that’s the first step: Realize, accept we are where we are.


In another entry, you say, “Another Sunday without the Eucharist.” How did you compensate for that, not just being unable to receive the Eucharist, but also not being able to celebrate Mass?

Well, I knew God was still with me. I knew I could still reach him by prayer. I actually had extraordinarily religious Sunday mornings. I didn’t have an alarm clock or I couldn’t get one to work for quite a while. Mass at home [on television in Australia] is on at 6am, which is a great sadness. I don’t know why we can’t afford to have a Mass for the oldies and shut-ins at a decent time on Sunday, but that’s a different matter. So in my cell I would get up for Mass. Then I watched for six months a Protestant service from Australia called Hillsong, just a sermon. Then I watched two very capable evangelists in the United States: Joseph Prince from California and Joel Osteen from Texas.


You found those encouraging in some way?

Some of them I certainly did, but I’d regularly give a theological critique.


Yes. That’s in the book isn’t it?

That’s right. Then I would watch the BBC’s Songs of Praise, which I thoroughly enjoyed, thoroughly enjoyed.


So you had a television? 

Yes, that was one of the things. All the prisoners have got a set in their cells. I suppose I was slightly surprised by that. I’ve said my time in solitary was like a 12-month worldly retreat because I had my television, which I wouldn’t have had [on a retreat]. 


You must’ve had periods of confidence and perhaps despair at times, that you might not be released. Did those thoughts go through your mind, that you would actually end your days in prison?

Oh no, I had a parole period of six years. No, there was no chance of that, but, no, I don’t think I ever despaired. Certainly you go up and down. For years, I’ve led a rather hectic public life, and I’ve learnt not to get too far down and certainly not to become too exhilarated or optimistic. I realized that after I’d been found guilty, that rational considerations were not inevitably conclusive, because there’s no doubt that legally it was a great mystery that I was convicted. An even greater mystery was that I lost in the supreme court [on appeal]. 

The prosecutor, I think, was a good man and didn’t try to bluff at the Victorian appeal court, so the only argument that he had was that the witness was credible. He was under enormous strain. He was abused by victims’ groups leaving the court because they reckoned he hadn’t done a good job. A very vocal opponent of mine said that the prosecution case was an “effing train wreck.” Some of my good supporters were in the court, praying to Our Lady, the Untier of Knots. As the poor old prosecutor struggled truthfully with his weak case, one said: “It’s working. He’s coming undone.”


Yes, I remember many people thought at the time that appeal hearing went very well, largely helped by the prosecutor. 

I don’t think he could have done much. He was constrained by the evidence.


What do you think of your accuser now and all those who are still convinced of your guilt, because there’s still a few people — I’ve seen them on Twitter and elsewhere — who are quite vitriolic and still think you’re guilty. What words do you have to say, first of all, to the accuser?

Well, to the accuser, I think we should both appeal to the truth. If something terrible happened to him, it was done by somebody else. It certainly wasn’t by me.


Do you forgive him?

Oh, yes, for sure — for sure. I feel for him. I’m not tempted to be as hostile towards him as towards some others. That’s not entirely rational, but you know, he hasn’t had an easy life. And to those who don’t believe that I’m innocent, I always say: Have a look at the evidence. Not even a credible witness can be in two places at once. The courts found, and the evidence overwhelmingly required, that it [the alleged abuse] had to have happened five or six minutes after Mass, between the first five or six minutes after Mass. During most of that time, the complainant, according to his own explanation, was still in the procession. You can’t be in the procession and be being attacked.


What about those who have suffered abuse, and that perhaps some of those who still think you’re guilty were abused in their lives? What would you say to them?

Well, look, the only long-term defense for any of us is the truth. The fact that people are being terribly mauled and damaged, that’s not helped if some innocent person is convicted. It just continues. I’m a great believer in due process. I’m a believer in justice, and justice first of all to the complainants. I think it’s quite reasonable that they have to demonstrate, prove beyond reasonable doubt, that the crimes happened in their situation.

I mean I’ve done a lot on this through the Melbourne Response [a ground-breaking protocol then-Archbishop George Pell established in 1996 to compensate victims of sexual abuse] and through my faithful implementation in Sydney, 13 years of “Towards Healing” [a 1996 document published by the Australian bishops’ conference setting out principles on handling abuse cases]. We made a bad tactical mistake when the Royal Commission started. We chose not to point out that the overwhelming majority of the offenses stopped from the middle or early ’90s. We’d broken the back of that problem. 

The Melbourne Response and Towards Healing were set up in ’96 and ’97. Spotlight, the film about Boston, retold incidents from 2002. Just recently a friend of mine was at a meeting and said: “How many pedophilia offenses have occurred in your dioceses this century?” The official said, “Actually, I don’t think there’s any.” The people, they were absolutely amazed. Most Australians would be amazed. They’re inclined to think that the Royal Commission is dealing with pedophilia attacks that occurred over the last 20 or 25 years, but, overwhelmingly, it was the ’80s, early ’90s or ’70s. So there’s no virtue in being painted worse than you are.

We had a comprehensive package that’s been heavily criticized. When I left Melbourne in 2001, a number of people said to me, “Well, that’s one thing at least you got right, by setting up the Melbourne Response.” That was in 2001. And it was welcomed by the police. The suggestion by the police commissioner that the Melbourne Response sent nobody to the police is completely false. 


Some say you blazed a trail with the Melbourne Response.

I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. The only way to deny that is to produce something that somebody else was doing. I think the man who ran [it] was heavily criticized, Peter O’Callaghan, but I think he was an outstanding man and outstanding lawyer.


Returning to the journal, you recall the contents of some of the letters that you received. Are there any that particularly stand out to you that you’d like to mention? Ones which were very encouraging to you?

Well, I was very [heartened to] get messages of support from Pope Francis the Holy Father and Pope Benedict. I think they were both very respectful of due process, of the Australian due processes, but made quite clear their support for me. Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, too. I heard sometimes from friends I hadn’t heard of for 20, 30, 40 years, and that was very good.


One of the letters you mention in the book is from a woman who claimed she sensed the presence of evil in the jury in the courtroom. You write that you didn’t. Did you nevertheless sense a spiritual battle going on?

Yes. Well, undoubtedly, the whole pedophilia thing is an evil thing. It’s a cancer, and the Church has been greatly weakened by it. But I think in many ways we’ve cut the cancer out. Now, just as certainly as this, I think in the pursuit of the Catholic Church, the wrong forces and a very blind zeal took over — a little bit like a lynch mob, a desire for a scapegoat. Quite a number of people, I’m told, said that publicly, including one of my better-known critics (he said a number of things as to whether I was guilty or not), but one of the things he did say to a group, a friend standing exactly beside him, “Well, yeah, he mightn’t be guilty, but the Church deserves to take a knock. The leaders of the Church deserve to be punished for that.” [I was] a classic scapegoat, I suppose.


You also talk about a message that was sent to you from Our Lady through a visionary called Christina Gallagher. She wrote that Our Lady had told her that “the reason the power of darkness overshadowed” you with “false accusations” was the work you had been doing to “correct financial wrongdoing and sexual misbehavior in the Vatican.” You then write that there’s no proof of such a connection, but you didn’t discount the possibility. You also say a bishop should be respectful of such locutions but also deeply skeptical. Have the latest events here regarding these allegations made you more convinced that these locutions were true?

Well, I’m not convinced the locutions are true, but there’s certainly more evidence suggesting that they might be true now than there was when I wrote it, but the jury’s still out.


There’s still no real evidence?

I didn’t say that. There’s no conclusive evidence. There is evidence. According to the press, one of the monsignors who’s been accused alleged that the money had gone from the Vatican to derail me, but that’s public record. He might be quite wrong, or the report might be wrong, but that’s public record.


We’ll just have to wait for the Vatican tribunal to know for sure?

Yes, there is a trial, a trial has been promised, due process, but I think there’s some indication that investigations are still going on in Australia. It’s the Victorian police who said [they’d stopped investigating]. It was interesting what was informally alleged, that the money went out, but to innocent parties — that the money went. Now, it’s not to say that other federal agencies in Australia are not still investigating this; I’m not sure whether they are or they aren’t. But they haven’t announced that they’re not.


You mentioned St. Thomas More a lot in the book.

I did.


Did his example and praying for his intercession give you a lot of encouragement, too? 

Well, I’ve always admired him and followed him. I suspect at that time my initial temptations, my initials instincts would have been more like [Bishop John] Fisher than More because More was a lawyer and Fisher wrote secretly to the Spanish emperor and told him to do his duty. I think what he meant by doing his duty was come and clean the place up militarily. 

But I took consolation in a prayer by an Italian priest [Father Dolindo Ruotolo, a Neapolitan priest who died in 1970] that a number of people sent me, which said: You should do nothing and leave everything in God’s hands. Now actually, the English translation, and this is in the journal, I think goes further in that direction than the Italian original, but nonetheless the direction is clear: We should just be inert, docile; don’t do anything — whereas I took consolation because More used every lawyer strategy that he had to try to keep out of trouble, and I felt that I was perfectly entitled to do the same. I felt for the name of the Church as well as my own name that I had an obligation to do that.


As well as television, you could read books — you had books to read?

You’re allowed six and six magazines which you could change over.


I notice you watched sports, and when England thrashed Australia at cricket you said you intended to explain to an English priest friend of yours that “the shame of being in jail was less than the shame of such an annihilation at the hands of the ‘old enemy.’” That must have been a tough hit — was it the hardest moment?

[Laughs] Not really, but I enjoyed writing it. It’s a bit of nonsense.


The journal does read like a spiritual retreat, in many ways. You said it was a bit like that. Would you like this book to perhaps be used on retreats? 

My first hope is that it might be of some religious help to people. How? I’m not the one to decide how that might be done. 


And there’s how much more to come?

Two more volumes.


Do you cover anything in these volumes about the current crisis in the Church, especially over doctrine, division and the emphasis of the temporal over the spiritual?

To some extent. I didn’t go looking for trouble. When you see them, you can draw your own conclusions. There’s one thing to have your views; another consideration is just how useful it might be to publish them.


You also discuss popes resigning and the need for clear protocols for any future popes who resign. Why did you feel the need to lay out your views on this area?

Well, because we might be entering a new era when many popes might resign. 


You say that “we should not be careless.”

I’ve mentioned this idea to a number of people, not too many, but you wouldn’t need two hands to number those I’ve mentioned it to; and one thing that surprised me is that, across the theological spectrum, there is overwhelming support, not necessarily for those particular protocols proposed. The response has been overwhelming because with the doctrinal divisions that are emerging and have emerged, Church unity is still a fantastic achievement, and we often just take it for granted. The Orthodox couldn’t even get all their national hierarchies to come together for a brief attempt at a council.