On George Pell - A Personal Reflection
Following the sudden death of Cardinal Pell, innocent of all charges against him and now at eternal rest, I am republishing one of my many articles on the Cardinal (July 2020). I have written over fifty thousand words on his trials, Victoria Police, Louise Milligan and related subjects. Many of these are freely available at The Freedoms Project and at Quadrant Online. Requiescat in pace.
Cardinal Pell is a free man, vindicated but not embittered. A model of forgiveness and compassion. And truth. And not done with yet.
Now the dust has settled. All the protagonists have had their say following the Holy Week exoneration of George Cardinal Pell by the High Court of Australia.
Victims groups released their statements, tinged with bitterness. Supporters of justice for all, like Frank Brennan, drew their legal conclusions. Politicians now utterly consumed with their own, other, crises, like Daniel Andrews, got their little jibes in. Julia Gillard, whose half billion dollar Royal Commission had finally been shown to have missed its primary mark, mumbled something or other faintly to console the victims industry, now aggrieved afresh.
The chief media prosecutors, like Louise Milligan, suggested that we all hug a child. For someone who should have seen real justice coming, this was a little lame, on reflection. Catholic Church leaders, like the fence sitter’s fence sitter, the bureaucratic Mark Coleridge, released their mealy mouthed, formulaic statements. Truly underwhelming, to be sure, as no doubt Cardinal Pell felt. “Such is life”, he said in response. Legal scholars debated what it all meant. The activists desecrated a couple of churches and left flowers.
Scott Morrison said nought.
Despite the conspicuous and ringing endorsements the Cardinal had earlier received from two of Morrison’s eminently more worthy predecessors, Tony Abbott (a Catholic) and John Howard (not a Catholic).
Cardinal Pell’s online supporters, through the various social media pages dedicated to his cause, have moved through the sequential stages of revenge – initial exhilaration, tinged with relief, blame, strategies for vindication, mild abuse of his tormentors, intentions to get even, however little attention was given to how this might be done, and then, calm silence.
Cardinal Pell granted an exclusive interview, no doubt watched by millions, to Andrew Bolt, one of the Cardinal’s most vigorous supporters out of season. Bolt is used to abuse from his many opponents, so no problem there. He had a great platform and he used it to the max.
Bolt was not the Cardinal’s only persistent supporter in the mainstream media. But there were not many. Alan Jones caught the wave to the beach after the result came in, but he certainly wasn’t just a post-hoc defender of the Cardinal. Others, on the fringes of the mainstream media, were strong and remained strong. Peter Westmore of the National Civic Council provided a consistently objective, fact based comprehensive analysis of the Pell case as it proceeded through its seemingly endless iterations. Keith Windschuttle at Quadrant broke new stories on the case – like the connection with the Billy Doe case in the USA – and provided rigorous insights on all sorts of issues related to the “evidence” of the case.
Others writing at Quadrant supplied some of the bits missing from the mainstream media. Like Professor John Finnis. A previously unknown theological researcher in remote Wales called Christopher Friel emerged from nowhere, and wrote over one hundred forensically researched essays on the Pell case. His insights were incredible, really. He totally broke the story of Lyndsay Farlow and unlocked the twitterati’s conspiracy to get Pell. This was astonishing journalism, to say the very least.
Another figure from Pell’s past, the indefatigable John Macaulay, contributed much intel to the international Catholic media, especially to EWTN. International observers merely looked on, without comprehension, at the legal events unfolding in Australia. One figure stands out, though. This was another who had brilliant access to global Catholic channels of communication. His name is George Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s biographer and a compelling truth teller. Writing mainly at First Things, he prosecuted two cases. One was that his old friend George Pell was innocent, and absurdly charged with offences unthinkable to us all, including to Pell himself. The second was that the whole charade had put Australian justice on trial in the international court of public opinion. He was a strategic supporter of Pell, decidedly out of season as well.
I have argued before that the broad Pell (small d) defence team had two objectives, and four strategies. The two objectives were to get him out of gaol, and to restore his decimated reputation. The four strategies were – prayer, public witness, communication with the Cardinal, and monetary contributions to his legal defence.
Two comments are needed here on the strategies.
First, Cardinal Pell received thousands of letters of support while he was in gaol, and these expressions of faith must have deeply affected the Cardinal. Just as the apparent expressions of support and connection for him from fellow prisoners must have provided much needed reassurance during his dark days of solitary confinement. Even though he routinely reported to his friends that prison was merely an elongated “retreat”.
And second, and no less important, as the Cardinal has himself acknowledged, the monetary contributions from Catholics rich and poor, kept him in the legal game. Man does not live on bread alone. But innocent cardinals fighting life-threatening legal battles do require a little of the folding stuff. (The Ignatius Press editor Fr Joe Fessio has indicated that there is a prison memoir coming, and that this will help offset the Cardinal’s still outstanding legal bills. So the bills are still to be fully paid). Without the financial support of many faithful Catholics, and non-Catholics, no doubt, the just outcome the Cardinal eventually received would never have been achieved.
Other, less well-known, Catholic priests known to me have also faced “justice” by accusation, and they have not received the media attention or financial support of the Catholic community that has been (correctly) afforded the Cardinal.
Post the excitement of the Cardinal’s release, and some much publicised police protection on route from Melbourne to Homebush in Sydney, Cardinal Pell has largely slipped from public view, enjoying, as any 79 year old might, a deservedly serene retirement.
The threat of any further legal action against him is entirely unlikely. The various accusers have had their day in court. They lost. Despite the grumbles and threats of Vivian Waller and other priest chasing lawyers, it is unlikely there will be civil actions. That would require the unveiling of the “victim”, Witness J, and his exposure to cross examination in open court. This is not likely to happen any time soon. And the Royal Commission’s redacted conclusions about the Cardinal’s culpability in relation to the Ridsdale and Searson matters are beyond farcical. They will have no impact or consequences. They will be seen forever as the intellectually thin attempts at self-justification by the well-rewarded legal establishment that they are.
No, the Cardinal is now well beyond the previously relentless pursuit of his now legally enfeebled and morally bankrupt accusers.
The American journal First Things, such a defiant source of international support for the Cardinal, has ongoing significance in the Pell story, post-exoneration. For the Cardinal has just recently published in First Things a reflection on his time in prison.
Fr Fessio of Ignatius Press has predicted that the Cardinal’s book on his time in prison will prove to be a “spiritual classic”. Perhaps some hints of the Cardinal’s approach can be gleaned from the First Things article, “My Time in Prison”. Not surprisingly, of course, he continues to protest his innocence. But there is much more contained in this piece, besides.
The Cardinal stated:
On a few other occasions during the long lockdown from 4:30 in the evening to 7:15 in the morning, I was denounced and abused by other prisoners in Unit 8. One evening, I overheard a fierce argument over my guilt. A defender announced he was prepared to back the man who had been publicly supported by two prime ministers. Opinion as to my innocence or guilt was divided among the prisoners, as in most sectors of Australian society, although the media with some splendid exceptions was bitterly hostile. One correspondent who had spent decades in prison wrote that I was the first convicted priest he had heard of who had any support among the prisoners. And I received only kindness and friendship from my three fellow prisoners in Unit 3 at Barwon. Most of the warders in both prisons recognized I was innocent.
The antipathy among prisoners toward the perpetrators of juvenile sexual abuse is universal in the English-speaking world—an interesting example of the natural law emerging through darkness. All of us are tempted to despise those we define as worse than ourselves. Even murderers share in the disdain toward those who violate the young. However ironic, this disdain is not all bad, as it expresses a belief in the existence of right and wrong, good and evil, which often surfaces in jails in surprising ways.
The Cardinal had allies in prison, including the prison boss who urged him to continue with his legal appeals when he himself doubted their value. Astonishing.
The Cardinal concluded:
My Catholic faith sustained me, especially the understanding that my suffering need not be pointless but could be united with Christ Our Lord’s. I never felt abandoned, knowing that the Lord was with me—even as I didn’t understand what he was doing for most of the thirteen months. For many years, I had told the suffering and disturbed that the Son of God, too, had trials on this earth, and now I myself was consoled by this fact. So, I prayed for friends and foes, for my supporters and my family, for the victims of sexual abuse, and for my fellow prisoners and the warders.
What emerges immediately from Pell’s article is matter-of-factness, a sense of humour, self-deprecation, humility and empathy. Vigorous self-defence, assuredly. Immensely practical spirituality, utterly consistent with his career approach to his salvific role as a humble servant of God. But very Pell-like, for those familiar with his writings and his spirituality.
It is an astonishing piece, all told. One waits with relish for the full story. One can only agree with Fr Fessio that it is likely to be a twenty-first century spiritual classic. I would expect no less. But a spiritual classic with a difference.
Cardinal Pell is a pragmatic pastor and a pragmatic thinker. He is a serious intellectual, of course, what with his Oxford doctorate and his many spiritual tomes such as God and Caesar, Test Everything and Contemplating Christ Through Luke, and his reflections on prominent twentieth century Catholic philosophers like Elizabeth Anscombe, who he knew personally.
But Pell’s spiritual writings and his thinking are infused with a down-to-earth Aussie realism and groundedness. His homilies, as evidenced by his Be Not Afraid, inevitably reflect a rare combination of the spiritual, the reflective and the practical.
His engagement with the earthly issues of the day, of course, have caused him grief with the elite worthies who played such an active and vindictive active part in the attempt to crucify him. One need only mention in passing the Cardinal’s climate change realism here. (Once at a small, intimate dinner that I attended with the Cardinal after a Melbourne book launch, I asked him if he might be thinking of graduating from a climate sceptic to a climate denier. He could only agree). His assumed political conservatism was, of course, a problem for the elites. He isn’t a Liberal though, but much more a disciple of BA Santamaria, himself an utter Liberal Party sceptic and a DLP man committed to a much more nuanced understanding of the limitations of free markets and capitalism, and of the need for family oriented economic policies.
Cardinal Pell has always played a straight bat on every issue, and has always been immeasurably honest. This, of course, reassured those (including his Church enemies) who might otherwise have entertained the thought that he might have “done it”. Once at a Campion College dinner he was asked what he thought of Pope John Paul’s act in 1986 of kissing the koran. He refused to criticise the then Pope, now, of course, a saint, but he did say – “I wouldn’t have done it myself”. Refreshingly honest. Informative. Engaging.
Could Pell have ever been papabile?
Famously, in terms of possible papal ambitions, he compared himself to a racehorse who had won a few country races but would never be considered a chance in the Melbourne Cup. Again, the common touch. His rise to number three in the Vatican confirmed Pell’s gravitas and his international reputation as a serious player in the Church. His appointment by a new pope (Francis) with whom he might not have been seen as a natural theological ally only confirmed his reputation as a can-do, reforming truth-teller. (He was given the assignment to clean up the Vatican’s notoriously corrupt finances. An assignment he assiduously accepted and proceeded to execute, only to be thwarted by what some have argued was a Vatican-Victorian police joint operation).
Pell’s pragmatism and commitment to truth was seen much earlier, of course, for those with the eyes to see.
He was the one, above all others, who called time on Catholic Church paedophilia in Australia, at the earliest time that he could. An achievement for which he was rewarded, not with the secular state’s eternal gratitude but instead with an absurd, vile, now utterly discredited campaign of vilification, to be crowned by the attempt by a corrupt police force and a compromised, woke political establishment to nail him to the cross.
We can expect from Cardinal Pell’s forthcoming reflections on his time in prison, if the First Things article is anything to go on, a balanced, grounded, empathetic focus on the real sufferings of the soulless and the troubled, the downtrodden and the forgotten, who languish in prison. His compassion for the sinner, above all, is apparent. His evident focus not on his own travails but on those of his fellows is astonishing, sublime, and incredible. The casualness of his reflections on his own massive injustices is striking. As is his forgiveness of his enemies. I, for one, would be hard pressed to be so forgiving. I continue to struggle, daily, to find it my heart to forgive his enemies.
A rare pastor, this man.
I sub-titled this article “a personal reflection”. Like many, I have felt personally connected to George Pell’s story, since 2002 when the career criminal Phil Scott first aired his charges against the former young seminarian George Pell. And so the saga began. I have lived, very personally, the calumnies against Pell since the bleak morning in 2015 when I walked the streets of a small New Zealand town trying to come to grips with the fresh charges then revealed, that challenged just about everything I believed in. I had totally accepted that the Church to whom I had given a lifetime’s admittedly imperfect, sinful allegiance was indelibly compromised by a sorry record of embedded “filth”, to borrow a compelling phrase from the then Cardinal Ratzinger. By the wickedness of its pastors, and by the managerialist inclinations to self-protection and an all-to-human, but still unforgivable, resort to cover-ups.
Catholics were crushed already. We didn’t need this.
My deeply personal commitment to George Pell was now under siege. This was different, and differently awful. Unthinkable. This cannot be true. Not Pell.
And at last, we now know, it wasn’t. But we always knew.
What we now have unleashed is not an ageing prelate bent on revenge against his many enemies and on personal vindication, but rather a deeply reflective pastor and spiritual giant of a man concerned to live out his remaining life in service of his God and of truth, leavened by endless compassion.
Not a bad model for those of us afflicted with far lesser burdens.