The heart of the cyclone
The first volume of Cardinal Pell’s prison memoirs are out now. What do they tell us?
The publication of Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal this week by Ignatius Press in the United States comes just seven months after the High Court in a unanimous 7:0 decision threw out his conviction by a Melbourne jury on historic abuse charges. In a society which espouses the presumption of innocence in all criminal matters, and despite the refusal of his enemies to acknowledge it, the Court upheld his innocence.
That background helps in understanding the spirit and significance of the first volume of the Journal. It records the thoughts and prayers and inner life of an innocent man as he begins what in the end were to be over 400 days in solitary confinement. The reader is immediately struck by the peace at the heart of the journal as the Cardinal records in his cell of an evening his day-by-day reflections on the world beyond the prison while living a terrible uncertainty. The trial judge had sentenced him to at least three and a half years in custody.
To understand the generosity of heart, the great intellectual range, and the lifetime of experience which shines through the often beautiful writing, an Australian reader faces a special challenge. For years Cardinal Pell had been the favourite target of the ill-will and sheer bigotry of secularists and enemies within his own Church alike. Their hostility dogged his steps from Melbourne to Sydney and all way to Rome. So at some stage readers must mentally clear away a jungle of misunderstanding and misreporting. Then they will appreciate the Prison Journal as the unfolding day-by-day of a rich interior life lived out in a sparse cell. At the end of his first day as a prisoner, he writes:
In every way, it is a relief the day is over. I am now at the quiet heart of the storm, while family, friends, and wider Church have to cope with the tornado.
In many ways the Journal explores life at the quiet heart of the storm, “peace which comes dropping slow”, a spiritual quest for God who is there at the heart.
That said, there is nothing ungrounded in these pages. It is full of wry, sometimes laconic observations which are unmistakably Australian and unmistakably Christian. The Journal is a master-class in forgiveness as a willed state, always under siege, and only achieved by grace.
Under that regime of ritual humiliations which is the hallmark of every prison system, there are constant reminders to the prisoner that he is powerless. After being chosen for a random drug test preceded by a full strip search, the Cardinal said to his amiable warder, “That was easy enough.” The warder replied, “Apart from the humiliation…”
The regime sends the prisoner to face court handcuffed but without belt or braces for the prison van trip. It is a regime he tells us which is supervised, in the most part, by decent men and women, but one which decrees a life spent 23 hours a day indoors with no direct light: “I miss the sun and the cityscape and the countryside having only a square of sky seen through bars in the exercise yard”. A life of a priest forbidden to celebrate Mass, but supported by the chaplain, Sister Mary O’Shannassy of the Good Samaritans, bringing the Eucharist. A life where hope, too, has to be prised loose.
Readers must keep reminding themselves of these harsh, quotidien facts when reading this journal as, among other things, a spiritual guide using the daily Prayers of the Church, reflections on Job and Revelation many other biblical readings, on the mystery of suffering, on the great feasts of the Church, on death.
Threaded through it all are reports from family and friends, occasional face-to-face visits, the speculation of lawyers, sporting highlights like the world-record by the great horse Winx in Group 1 races or the defeat of Richmond by Collingwood in a proper football grudge match.
Over the weeks, hundreds and hundreds of letters from the faithful in every corner of the world are in time released by the censors, no small task. They sustain him with stories of support, prayers and hymns, and unshakeable assurances of their belief in his innocence.
In this sealed world, the outside could still break in. During week 5 in solitary the Cardinal says that “the birds were singing nearby at about 3:45 PM when I was outside, only the second time I’ve heard them”. Then some weeks later a tiny bird was singing above the narrow exercise yard, still trapped as it turned out between the mesh and bars which fenced it in.
As the Easter season drew to a close, and the Cardinal sat through two days of hearing in the Court of Appeal, the consensus of his friends and his lawyers was confidence that he would be released in a matter of days. While his supporters shared their optimism with him, his opponents denounced the prosecution for failing to bring home the bacon – even calling for the prosecution counsel to be disbarred for disappointing them – while a prominent writer derided the prosecution as “a – expletive deleted -train wreck”). As time would prove no counsel can make a bad case good.
The judges left the bench having reserved their decision.
This volume ends on 13 July 2019, 37 days after the appeal was heard and 39 days before the Court of Appeal came back with its decision. Knowing that final outcome, readers will have an awful sense of dread: If only you knew.
Soon trust in our system of justice would be shaken. The wish to walk free after so many months would be dashed.
But all that is for future volumes. There will be two more bringing the Journal to a close. Fittingly this volume ends on 13 July 2019 with an expression of gratitude for the Quadrant editor, Keith Windschuttle who had written that we “can only hope that the B-grade spectacle we have witnessed at so many places in the persecution of George Pell is an aberration and not a portent of some squalid, unwatchable future.” It was in an editorial entitled “The Majesty of the Law” and those hopes were indeed crushed a month later when the Court of Appeal in a 2:1 decision rejected the Cardinal’s appeal. The Introduction to volume 1 by the distinguished American writer and Catholic intellectual, George Weigel, captures this whole “tawdry tale” brilliantly.
Throughout his long ordeal, with many chapters yet to come, Cardinal Pell never expresses self-pity, nor rancour against his accusers. “I have felt more exasperated by one or two of the opposition lawyers and some journalists than with my accusers,” he says. As he foresaw on that first day behind bars, his family and friends and the Church share the public shaming, while – as we can now see – the Free Press took a holiday.
- Terry Tobin QC is a former Chancellor of Notre Dame University in Australia and is Chair of Aid to the Church in Need Australia