Cardinal Pell speaks on maintaining hope in prison
Cardinal George Pell, who was acquitted this year after becoming the highest-ranking Catholic cleric ever to be convicted of sexual abuse, spoke this week about how he maintained hope during his 400 days in prison.
“The virtue of Christian hope is different than Christian optimism. No matter what your circumstances are in this life, eventually, all will be well. A good God is in charge, even though terrible things happen,” Cardinal Pell, 79, said in an interview aired Aug. 16.
Cardinal Pell was initially convicted in Australia in 2018 of multiple counts of sexual abuse. On April 7, 2020, Australia’s High Court overturned his six-year prison sentence. The High Court ruled that he should not have been found guilty of the charges and that the prosecution had not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
He spent 13 months in solitary confinement, during which time he was not permitted to celebrate Mass.
The cardinal still faces a canonical investigation at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, though after his conviction was overturned, several canonical experts said it was unlikely he would actually face a Church trial.
Cardinal Pell said despite the discomfort and humiliation of being in prison, he was often surprised by the decency and professionalism of the majority of the prison officers, who conversed with him and other men in solitary confinement.
The cardinal’s remarks were live-streamed as part of the 10th annual Napa Institute conference, held virtually this year Aug. 14-15.
“I knew intellectually, forensically, that my case was enormously strong,” he said, but added he was not “optimistic” in a human sense. His faith, and daily prayer, helped to keep him from despair and bitterness, he said.
Dealing with jail
The cardinal received about 4,000 letters while in prison. He rarely replied, except to letters from fellow prisoners. Many of his supporters wrote from the U.S.; a couple of women from Texas sent letters regularly, he said. Many of his supporters asked Pell to pray for them.
He said would have, under normal circumstances, celebrated Mass for the many people who routinely asked for his prayers.
While in prison and forbidden from celebrating Mass, the Cardinal said he would instead pray a Memorare to the Virgin Mary for the person’s intention immediately.
He said he also fostered his prayer life through praying the Divine Office, spiritual reading, and watching Mass every Sunday at 6 a.m. He said he would even watch Evangelical preachers from the U.S., such as Joel Olsteen, on television, and “make a theological critique of their efforts” in his journal.
Cardinal Pell also wrote three pages a day in his journal. He said he had originally thought he might be in prison for three months, but it ended up being 13 months.
He said writing was good therapy, and that he hopes what he wrote might help others.
Ignatius Press plans to publish in Spring 2021 either an abridged version of Pell’s prison journal, which runs to 1,000 pages, or the first volume of the full text, the publisher said in June.
In terms of keeping up with the goings-on in the outside world, Pell said he had a newspaper to read three times a week and would watch television for the national news. He said he closely followed the events surrounding Brexit, as well as theAmazon Synod, which took place at the Vatican during October 2019.
Cardinal Pell said although he had some concerns about the synod while it was going on, “the results weren’t too bad.” Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the Amazon— the final result of the synod— calls for women in the South American region to be included in new forms of service in the Church, but not within the ordained ministries of the permanent diaconate or priesthood.
“What gains there were— well, that’s for those who were present to say,” he said.
Supporters would also send him clippings and articles; he said they knew that news would provide some intellectual stimulation.
Cardinal Pell said the Christian concept of redemptive suffering was a great comfort to him while enduring the humiliation, quiet, and boredom of prison.
“I was quite confident that my small sufferings— and they weren’t enormous— were something that could be offered, with Christ’s suffering, for the good of the Church,” he said.
“I knew I was innocent, I knew logically and forensically that I had a very strong case, that I would be vindicated. But in a spectacular failure, the most senior judges in Victoria were unable to see that.”
US Church key to the future
The Cardinal sought to remind the U.S. Catholics that the Church in the U.S. is, for the whole Western world, “vitally important for us in smaller countries.”
Though the U.S., like many places, has had problems and scandals, including with leadership, Cardinal Pell said it is important for smaller countries to rely on the U.S. Catholic Church for leadership, scholarship, and pastoral methods.
He mentioned Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as, in his mind, particularly outstanding Church leaders.
“The irony of it is— and it’s demonstrated in the liberal Protestant world, it’s demonstrated in the Catholic world, in Belgium, Holland, Quebec and to some extent in Switzerland and Austria— the more you adapt to the world the faster the Catholic Church goes out of business.”
Still, Cardinal Pell said he believes that if the Church remains true to Christ, and the teachings of the Gospel, new leaders and renewal movements will come along, as they did in the times of the Benedictines, Franciscans, and Jesuits.
“Adversity is not necessarily bad for the Church. Adversity can bring the best out of us,” he said.