Prison Journal

(Volume I: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal) (by George Cardinal Pell) (2020)

The story is notorious, and you don’t require the gift of faith or have to hold a brief for the real victim to find it shocking. Pell was the leading Catholic figure in Australia, of a conservative bent, and detested by many Australians, who considered him a monster. The reasons for this seem to be that he was the leading Catholic figure in Australia, and of a conservative bent. His conviction for historical sex crimes saw a ‘pile-on’ of a magnitude only comparable with the demonisation of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain in the Azaria murder case of the 1980s (see below, for example, one of the myriad humourous memes on social media).

About 2014 he went to head the Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican, charged with getting to the bottom of what on its face seemed to be endemic financial corruption in the Church and especially in its financial transactions emanating from the Vatican. Curiously, also around this time, a whole bunch of money was sent from Rome to Melbourne, Victoria, where subsequent rumours started to abound, of historical sexual abuse committed by Pell (there is, as yet, no evidence of linkage between these two events). But Pell’s accuser told almost the same story as a sacristy allegation made a bit earlier in Philadelphia. Eventually, he was charged (in June 2017) and on 11 December 2018, at a second trial, he was found guilty by a jury of 5 counts of sexual assault, stemming from 2 related incidents. The sole evidence of guilt was the (improbable, inconsistent, and uncorroborated) version of events by the altar boy in question. We have previously had a say on the danger of these types of cases, where the crime is so primordial it might not have actually occurred.

This journal begins on the day the Cardinal is sent to jail (27 February 2019), and covers his time in prison until 13 July 2019. During those 5 months, he is sentenced (on 13 March 2019) to 6 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 3 years and 8 months (the spectators at the hearing described by a correspondent as generating “a ‘carnival atmosphere’ that was ‘excited, salivating, giddy with delight’…All that was missing..was the hotdog stand“); he accustoms himself to solitary confinement (in which he is tempered by his upbringing in a seminary), reads over two thousand supportive letters, reads his breviary (Job, Revelation), watches football, the horse races, “Mass for You at Home” – shades of Father Ted – news and documentaries on TV, makes countless cups of tea with his little kettle, has the odd visit or medical check, receives writs from new accusers, listens to other prisoners (whom he never sees) vent and clatter, and walks for an hour or so each day in a grotty outdoor pen that he occasionally is allowed to sweep.  He also invests great hope in his appeal against conviction to the Victorian Court of Criminal Appeal, which is heard in June 2019 but no decision is to hand by the end of this volume.

Three things strike one, reading the book: (1) The dreary but tolerable routine of prison life, with its ridiculous agenda, arbitrary rules, distance from normal life, cold (occasionally warm) food, and toilet paper for serviettes; (2) his religious reflections on and beyond his stunning downfall and humiliation, in which he is not always the most empathetic of men; and (3) his unwavering faith in ultimate legal vindication (would that all accused might be afforded this, or at least the services of Bret Walker SC!). Notwithstanding this, he seems to display admirable fortitude, even (dare we say as a heathen) grace, in a most trying situation. Pell is no prose stylist, but he writes clearly and well, and the drudgery of solitary life in a prison cell becomes quite compelling, for all the events, correspondence and musings he records.

Some extracts are illustrative:

Coming to Court where bail is to be revoked in the wake of a guilty verdict: “Very hostile crowd, especially one poor man, middle-aged, whose face was contorted with rage. I wonder what the Church did to him.  However most of the crowd were media.”

It has been interesting to have a number of people, from Ruth [his junior counsel] to prison staff, explaining to me that my faith would be a great help at this time. My first instinct was to respond tartly that I knew this already, but the comments were kindly meant and interesting, even a little poignant, coming from people without faith.”

The food continues to be plentiful, too plentiful, but the main meal, which we can choose from four alternatives, is never hot and often unappetising.”

“ is particularly difficult to portray Jesus in films, though I admired Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I would not have followed some of the Christ figures in other films across the road, let alone given up my life for them.”

While he ponders the age old question why a God allows so much evil and pain, he is, nevertheless, an ‘old-school’ doctrinal warrior, who diverges not only from the secular and anticlerical noise of the modern world, but those in the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church whom would see a ‘more modern’, less transcendent Catholicism: “Does a human church mean there should be less emphasis on the supernatural, a quiet downplaying of the vertical dimension of life?…Do the Scriptures, the councils, creeds, Magisterium have the last word, or is modernity the final arbiter, changing with every generation? …What does a more open and inclusive Church mean in practice? What is required to follow Christ? Surely we need to accept and practise his teachings or try to do so. We have no warrant to pick and choose and discard. And on the Last Day, Christ the Judge will not be inclusive as he separates the sheep from the goats… …Until sin [the concept thereof] makes a comeback, the Church cannot go forward.”

I passed most of the day opening and reading my beautiful letters and managed to take both my exercise periods. Food-wise, Sunday is the highlight with roast chicken for lunch and cold chicken in the evening with a sweet of jelly and fruit.”

One school of thought proposes “‘we are not sure if he is guilty, but some leader from the ‘old church’ needs to be punished.’ I would not volunteer for such a role…

‘the unbridled and effective attack on the Church, weakened by scandals and poor morals, and…the grim reality that many outside the Church are no longer interested in what we say...[is not] the whole truth, because if the hostile world believed that our teaching was not a provocation and that our forces were spent, they would leave us alone.” 

Doubts are good, because usually doubters are searching for the truth. But when there is only my truth and your truth, when truth is the product of power and can be imposed on others by the more powerful, the search for evidence becomes superfluous, even annoying. St Thomas is no patron of the thought world which is rearing its head in a number of places.”

I…would want to shift out of solitary confinement if, by some disaster, my appeal was unsuccessful.”  We all know how that went (see below). It will be fascinating to read Volume II of this Journal, to see how the Cardinal receives good news (Richmond winning another premiership) and bad (the decision of the Victorian Supreme Court).


We know how the story ends: the Cardinal lost his appeal to the Victorian Supreme Court by a 2:1 majority, with the most convincing reasons expressed by Justice Weinberg in dissent [see the link here:]. That was 21 August 2019, so Pell had to stay in jail a further 8 months, until 7 April 2020, when the High Court of Australia (7:0) overturned the convictions and acquitted Pell on the charges, sparing everyone a re-trial [].  The High Court stated in its judgment that a jury, acting rationally, could not have not had a reasonable doubt, and that, in a masterful understatement, “there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted.”  If you look at the transcripts of argument before the High Court, and track through the whole sordid history of this case, one might dare to suspect (although there isn’t a scrap of evidence), that persons unknown tried to frame Pell.

Image result for george pell memes


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