George Pell’s Prison Diaries

As long as we’re talking about the Catholics, I guess we should touch on some current events in the Catholic world. A while back we talked about confession via Zoom, which is a fascinating idea – very Covid, very topical. More recently you might have heard about the two hundred Indigenous kids buried on church ground in Canada, or the spate of Canadian churches that mysteriously caught fire in the subsequent weeks. Or you might have heard about George Pell’s prison journals – there’s three of them, apparently, and the second one’s recently out. Let’s talk about that for a bit.

George Pell is an Australian Catholic cardinal accused of child sexual abuse. He was initially convicted of the crime in 2018, but after several rounds of appeal, in 2020 the cardinal was cleared by the Australian High Court, who found that the jury ought to have “entertained a reasonable doubt” as to Pell’s guilt. In the wake of the trial, supporters on both sides were acrimonious. Pell’s supporters saw it as a politically motivated attack stemming from hostility towards the Catholic church, while his detractors saw it as a powerful man escaping justice.

And there is some truth to the idea that people hate Catholics. Every day seems to reveal some new violence or horror that the church has covered up. Even when there’s no active malice involved, the Catholics’ reputation is so bad that everyone kinda does assume the worst. I’ll admit that when I first heard about the case, while it was still ongoing, I assumed Pell was guilty. That wasn’t a legal opinion based on the evidence or a conviction held with any particular passion – it was just a default assumption. You hear about a high ranking Catholic priest accused of child abuse in Australia and you think ah yeah, another one. That’s not ill will, it’s just stats. The Royal Commission on child abuse in Australia heard from two and a half thousand survivors who were abused in Catholic institutions (as noted in the executive summary, page 45). Two and a half thousand Australian kids across nearly a thousand different Catholic institutions – and those are just the kids who came forward. The Catholic church in Australia also offered the Commission their own records of alleged child abuse, which totalled four and a half thousand claimants between 1980 and 2015 (page 47). According to the church, their data identified nearly two thousand different perpetrators, with another five hundred whose identities could not be confirmed – again, all within Australia. 75% of those abusers were people in religious ministry (page 60). Given all of that context, it would not be out of keeping with the church’s reputation for the Pell allegations to be true.

So Pell was convicted in 2018. He appealed, and last year the high court found him innocent – or more specifically, they found that the burden of proof lay with the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he’d committed the crime, and that the prosecution didn’t meet that bar. The court specifically did not impinge on the testimony of the nameless witness, who accused Pell of sexually assaulting both him and his friend. They merely said that the prosecution did not do enough to establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. So Pell was released, and his prison journals were turned into books and put up for sale by Ignatius Press. This is how those books are marketed:

Innocent! That final verdict came after George Cardinal Pell endured a grueling four years of accusations, investigations, trials, public humiliations, and more than a year of imprisonment after being convicted by an Australian court of a crime he did not commit.

Led off to jail in handcuffs, following his sentencing on March 13, 2019, the 78-year-old Australian prelate began what was meant to be six years in jail for ‘historical sexual assault offenses’. Cardinal Pell endured more than thirteen months in solitary confinement, before the Australian High Court voted 7-0 to overturn his original convictions. His victory over injustice was not just personal, but one for the entire Catholic Church.

Bearing no ill will toward his accusers, judges, prison workers, journalists, and those harboring and expressing hatred for him, the cardinal used his time in prison as a kind of ‘extended retreat’. He eloquently filled notebook pages with his spiritual insights, prison experiences, and personal reflections on current events both inside and outside the Church, as well as moving prayers.”

Is that a little weird? It feels a little weird. There’s almost this sense of smugness about the whole thing, of vindication over and against a hostile world – which feels inappropriate, given the context. In the editorial reviews, Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, compares Pell to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Jesus himself, claiming that they were all “unjustly jailed but never defeated.” And – let’s assume that the Catholics are correct, right, just for a second. Let’s assume that people were motivated to attack the church exclusively out of hatred and anger. In this context, the reason why people are angry and hateful towards the church is because of the thousands of children abused by church leaders. It’s because of the terrible things that the church is unambiguously guilty of doing. So to spell out Dolan’s comparison: Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for trying to kill Hitler, Martin Luther King was imprisoned for fighting for black civil rights, and Pell was imprisoned because Australians are disproportionately angry about the two and a half thousand priests who went around molesting children. Is that weird? It feels a little weird.

Let’s try and come at this from a different angle. The imagery used in this marketing is imagery of the martyr, of the faithful believer persecuted for holding true to the Gospel – of the Christians thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. It’s imagery of Jesus, of Stephen, of the innocent lamb torn down by the evil ones, only to rise again triumphant. If the marketing focused on Pell as an individual, that imagery would still probably be insensitive, but it’d maybe be a little more understandable. However, the marketing explicitly pitches Pell’s victory as “one for the entire Catholic Church.” Pell’s imprisonment is cast as emblematic of the wider hostility towards Catholicism in modern culture – and as testimony to God’s goodness in allowing the Catholics to overcome it. In that reading, the accusations of child abuse that plague the Catholic church are not valid criticisms of a catastrophically corrupt religious hierarchy, but merely superficial torments brought by the evil one to trouble God’s blameless people. The thousands of Australian children abused by Catholic clergy are reduced to weapons in a culture war, not to be considered on their own merit, but as pawns in the battle between Catholicism and mainstream secular culture, between the divine and the anti-Christ. This marketing speaks to an absolute repudiation of any sense of guilt, shame, or responsibility for the actions of the church more broadly. Their actual victims are disappeared, and hostility and anger are rewritten as resistance to the Gospel, as the same persecution faced by Jesus. Criticism of the church, in the longest view, is only a masked instance of criticism of the divine.

And the worst part is that we can imagine a calmer, humbler variant of this marketing. As part of the Royal Commission on Child Abuse, the Catholics set up a Truth, Justice and Healing Council. Its CEO, Francis Sullivan, characterises the church’s actions as “a massive failure … to protect children” and “a misguided determination … to put the interests of the Church ahead of the most vulnerable” (volume 16, p288). Imagine if that spirit was threaded through our text. If – again, to imagine that the Catholics were correct – if the worst was true, and it was all just a big hateful witch hunt – wouldn’t the truly humble thing have been to recognise where that hurt was coming from? This isn’t Bonhoeffer trying to kill Hitler. The people on the opposite side aren’t Nazis. They’re a bunch of Australians who are justifiably angry at Catholic child abuse. Can’t you imagine a gracious church acknowledging the legitimate pain that it had caused untold thousands of Australian children, and saying – hey, we understand why people went so hard after Pell. We understand why people hate him, and what he represents, and we want to rise above it and work to make things better. That would indicate growth, and genuine spiritual maturity, instead of this adversarial cash-in. I don’t know. I enjoy reading de Lubac, but it’s important to keep in mind the things that are happening on the ground today. The Catholics are running around acting like they’re being persecuted and harassed, like everyone’s out to get them (for the crimes that they committed repeatedly and regularly upon thousands of children across a thousand different institutions in this country). Ignatius Press lists Pell’s diaries under ‘Inspirational’ – and I guess that’s really the heart of this. I just don’t understand how anyone can look into the sad, sorry story of Catholic child abuse in Australia and feel anything other than shame.

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