Cardinal George Pell spent 13 months in prison before his conviction for child sexual abuse was overturned by the High Court. During his time in jail, he wrote diaries musing on faith, sport and life. By Peter Craven.

The prison journals of Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell in a televised interview last month with Italian journalist Bruno Vespa.
Cardinal George Pell in a televised interview last month with Italian journalist Bruno Vespa.
Credit: EPA / Giuseppe Lami

In his days of predominance, Cardinal George Pell did his best to rule the Catholic Church with a rod of iron. When the former Archbishop of Sydney and Vatican Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy was found guilty of historical sexual offences, his barrister, Robert Richter, QC, said the state had convicted an innocent man. He added that Pell would cope with prison like the man he was. After 406 days in prison, and the rejection of his appeal in Victoria, he was acquitted in a unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia.

Three volumes of prison journals, a thousand pages in all, released by religious publisher Freedom Publishing, are the record of the coping. Pell remembers the day he got his Doctorate of Philosophy at Oxford and how Graham Greene, whom he had always admired because of how “poignantly” he had written about “the co-existence of faith and weakness”, had received an honorary degree, and how Greene had sat there, a surprisingly tall man, taking it all in as if to write about it.

This is a characteristic moment in these journals by this famously muscular Christian whose power to impose his personality on behalf of a conservative Catholicism somehow went into reverse and left him bereft.

In his view, “the jury felt I was responsible and deserving of punishment on issues outside the trial, where something must have happened”. He adds that the effect of prime minister Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was to “foment anti-Catholicism much of which was deserved but not all of it”.

These diaries manifest the strange power of a natural man of action who is – as Richter says – a humorous man and a spiritual man doing his best to stay sane and to disdain bitterness under extraordinary circumstances. He prays – consistently, urgently, formally – “to keep hatred out of my heart”.

We hear his junior barrister, Ruth Shann, report that Richter’s faith in the law has been shaken, that the prosecutor Mark Gibson “did not believe the jury could accept such a mélange”. We also hear Pell thinking, bemusedly, on the vicinity of “a Muslim terrorist” he can hear chanting his prayers in the prison.

Jim Wallace, the retired brigadier, who was head of the Australian Christian Lobby and is “a good friend”, sends Pell a Bible quotation: “For the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of them into your hands”. Peter Jensen, his sometime Anglican peer, says the 23rd psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd”, always seems the best bet in our time of “exile”.

These journals also provide the small details of prison life. After one of the routine strip searches, Pell says to his warder, “That was easy enough.” His keeper responds, “Apart from the humiliation.” The cardinal is unfazed: “You get used to that.”

Pell is encouraged and amused by the nun – he thinks she must be young – who writes to him saying if it was fair enough for Jesus to be born in a food stall, what’s wrong with a “cardinal in the clink”? He almost whistles to the tune and reports that in his days of glory, confirming children, his episcopal splendour provoked a young boy to say, “Dad, it’s the King!” His father rushed to dampen this, “No, it’s only the Archbishop.”

Pell admired Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the late (Jewish) archbishop of Paris, for the toughness and viability with which he pursued an orthodox Christian agenda, but there’s no mention of the Frenchman’s ban on preaching against the use of condoms during the AIDS crisis. He likes Boris Johnson, too, recalling fondly their meeting and admiring the British prime minister’s biography of Winston Churchill. He even sounds forgiving about his “colourful personal life” despite his dour view that materialism and the sexual revolution “have denied the ability to see God”.

Elsewhere, Pell talks of Israel Folau’s simple Protestant faith, which he thought might have kicked on a little if he’d known the sort of penny catechism that instructs us in the necessity of full knowledge and full consent when it comes to mortal sin.

Throughout, he is extraordinarily tough, sedulous and ruthless at trying to keep his own conscience in a fit shape. He does not have “a high opinion” of his accuser, J, but says he has “no enormous difficulty in forgiving him recognising his sufferings”. It’s harder with his media enemies, but he remembers old Bishop O’Collins of Ballarat, who told him, “If you have hate in your heart, you won’t do any good.” So again he prays.

Each one of the daily diaries ends with a prayer. The ones he improvises are simple. “God, our Father, may all those who have been abused physically, emotionally and sexually … be healed by the balm of your compassion.” The grander ones are from the saints and masters of how the mystery of faith may find a language. Thomas More, lawyer, martyr and author of Utopia, is one: “The things, good Lord, that I pray for give me the grace to labour for.” John Henry Newman, James Joyce’s favourite English prose stylist, is another.

There is something a bit surprising about the way George Pell is taken aback when Peter Comensoli, the current Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, explains to him that J may have been attacked by some other priest and displaced the memory because that theory was a commonplace in legal and, one imagines, clerical circles as an explanation of the accuser’s credibility.

The cardinal is staggered when the Victorian appeal goes against him in a 2:1 decision. “I was astonished and badly upset.” He invokes that ancient prayer “Domine ad adiuvandum me festina (O Lord, make haste to help me).” Before too long he is comforted by Justice Mark Weinberg’s dissenting judgement and by Richter’s assurance that the High Court “should not be too strongly hostile to a pushy social conservative”.

The tough-minded dryness is one of the attractive qualities of these journals, which radiate a remarkable strength of mind and an ability to strive for the quality that Yeats referred to in Keats as “deliberate happiness” and that in practice is courage in the face of all but overwhelming temptations to despair.

Pell says early on he had never liked writers, including Christian writers such as John of the Cross, who had emphasised the necessary role of suffering. Still, he cannot escape that he is writing from jail. As he says, “Prison is a place of punishment, despite being run by decent people.”

Mostly in these diaries he distracts himself with the weather, what he thinks of the news, the different bits of religious sermonising he attends to on television. He has a daily diet of Joseph Prince, and notes the variety of rings he wears, followed by that other American televangelist Joel Osteen. Even though they are proceeded by Mass of the Day and sometimes Songs of Praise it’s interesting that Pell, the highest-ranking Australian Catholic prelate in history, should recognise them as co-religionists. In that respect, he is surprisingly ecumenical.

One of the ironies is that Pell, who is devoted to the thought of Newman, the author of Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Grammar of Assent, has so much more in common with Cardinal Manning, who was attacked by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians and done justice to in a biography by Robert Gray. Manning was an Anglican convert, he had been married and was a lion of administrative brilliance and toughness who turned Victorian English Catholicism into a thing not just of marble but of bricks and mortar.

Pell is cut from the same cloth and has the same bluntness and bluffness. It’s typical of him that he takes such pleasure in Australian rules football, cricket – Test and one day – and every kind of sport going. He talks about these things with an eloquent enthusiasm. They cheer him and he also provides a level of sports chat that’s unusual in its breadth and summarising trenchancy. Needless to say, the man who might have played for Richmond manages to mix sport into the palette of his generalised dogmatism.

“Big bash cricket … is like Impressionist painting,” he writes at one point, “in as much as it is beautiful and attractive but lacks intellectual rigour and spiritual sustenance which are found both in classical painting from the 15th century and test cricket.”

Elsewhere, Pell compares St Paul’s Cathedral in London to the MCG. “I am not brimful of enthusiasm for Wren’s masterpiece because when empty it resembles a concert hall, like the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which is awful when it is empty (the Sydney Cricket Ground is always beautiful…).”

When he hears of the death of the footballer Danny Frawley who “had previously suffered from depression” he wants passionately to say Mass for the repose of his soul and for the sake of his family. There is also a heartfelt requiescat for Peter O’Callaghan, the old silk who had overseen the Melbourne Response.

All of this intense yearning for the vocation of the priesthood is impressive and patently sincere. He talks about the godliness of the Bach Passions. He adores Beethoven and he will quote Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and Donne: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Or Eliot: “where will the word / Resound? / Not here, there is not enough silence.” He sometimes – unsurprisingly – quotes James McAuley at his most orthodox and cites Bruce Dawe’s voice of the unborn, “I never walked abroad in air / I never saw the sky.”

This old warrior of the political and religious right is not only willing to countenance Donald Trump, because he could see the political capital of exploiting the anti-abortion lobby, but also believes that there is a “demonic” aspect to the attack on him and to the mudslide of the world in general. He says he believes in the supernatural and it’s easy to forget that a certain kind of Christian sees the ways of light and darkness unfolding before their eyes and that this kind of enacted mythology can co-exist with an apparent shrewdness.

The devil features again and again in these journals. Pell describes Hilary Mantel as doing “the devil’s work” in her Wolf Hall sequence of novels simply because she likes Thomas Cromwell and can’t stand Thomas More.

Pell’s defence was fearful of letting him into the witness box in his own trial but he made the final decision against it himself because he was scared of the torrent of anger he would let loose at the way the prosecution treated his friend Monsignor Charles Portelli.

He says that when he was a young priest he read Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest – which was to be made into a cinematic masterpiece by Bresson – but didn’t like it.

“In those heady days in Rome, during and immediately after the Second Vatican Council, I thought the church would go from strength to strength, a bit like a new Pentecost, by becoming more open, modern and reasonable.” Now he quotes Bernanos: “The Church doesn’t need reformers, she needs saints.”

None of which is to deny that George Pell was a reformer, not least in the way he did everything in his power – when it was his job – to clean up the Vatican finances, which were seriously corrupt. He did this while enemies such as erstwhile Cardinal Becciu were forever “blackguarding” him with Pope Francis. He said he came to dread the Pope’s press conferences because of how confused the Pope could get over these matters, which Pell saw with a very pragmatic, Anglo-Saxon clarity.

He is unamused but dry to the point of being almost funny in talking about the church making investments in Elton John’s biopic Rocket Man replete with gay sex, as well as some very expensive London brothel. It disgusts him to the bottom of his soul that this money, which should be given to the poor, has lined the pockets of corrupt churchmen.

He prays constantly for his fellow prisoners, innocent and guilty. He is constantly thoughtful in his way, even though he believes climate change is an apocalyptic fantasy the modern mind has invented as a substitute for the possibility of hell. At the same time, he can wonder if Michael Moore is right that a sinking middle class will endanger democracy.

He talks about himself like this: “If a spiritual mediocrity like me can provoke gratitude or faith by a small kindness”: well anything is possible.

He is genuinely shocked that Mother Teresa could say that Jesus “became sin. He took on our sins” by embodying them. And his heart goes out to the woman he reveres as a saint and mystic because of the “terrible emptiness, loneliness, no sense of God’s presence” that she suffered and which made her say “Jesus is asking a bit much” for all the steadfastness of her faith. But his constant prayer in the face of his predicament is: “Deliver me from jealousy and self-pity.”

Yes, he’s inclined to think Dante wouldn’t be tolerated in a contemporary university and forgets the sentence of death that hung over him in Florence. He says, “I hope I’m not being called to three more years in jail” and later says, “I too have been accused by a number of men who are either fantasising, telling lies, or victims of altered memories; and I am not yet vindicated.”

At the same time he admits that he could be a lot worse off. He’s more or less okay psychologically, even if he doesn’t feel very religious. He has some fine moments of modesty. He says when he became Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy there was “not a high-class field of honest candidates”.

Through all this, he’s sustained by faith in a church which is, in Newman’s phrase, “not degenerate from its ancient glory, of zeal for God and compassion for the oppressed”.

He says the Muslim prisoners have not yet discovered Australia’s reticence about religion and one of them asks him to explain the Trinity. Sometimes he thinks they’re a superior lot and on rare occasions he’s inclined to the dim view taken of them by his hero Aquinas. He seems to admire the absolutism of their spirituality and fears their extremism and is uncomprehending of the liberal secularist embrace of refugees.

In the end it doesn’t quite matter. This is a man who is absolutely sceptical of the claims of the other great world religions. He spends a lot of time talking about Covid-19 and cricket and feeling he barely has a right to pray for himself. He still prays for “those in prison … wounded in heart, mind and spirit”.

He knows exactly why Teresa of Avila could say “no wonder God has so few friends given how he treats them”. But he goes on to pray “that God does not miscalculate, does not overestimate our strength, but gives all those in the wrong place at the wrong time, the muscle and wisdom to hang on, to muddle through…”

When the High Court vindicates him with a unanimous acquittal, he punches the air a couple of times and then prays the Te Deum.

“Miracles will never cease,” the dry warder says. The cardinal holds his ground. “This was no miracle,” he says, “it was justice!”

He ends with words about the Alpha and the Omega and says he hopes his book might be handy for firebrands and lukewarmers, believers and agnostics. After all, he says, they cried Hosanna, but Christ was riding a donkey.

George Pell’s Prison Journals Volumes 1-3 are released by Freedom Publishing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "The prison journals of Cardinal Pell".

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