From 2019 to 2020, Cardinal George Pell, the retired Catholic archbishop of Melbourne (1996-2001) and Sydney (2001-2014), spent almost 14 months in solitary confinement after being falsely accused for sexual assault. He was finally released after his unanimous acquittal by Australia’s High Court. The journal Pell kept in prison has now been published in three volumes under the title Prison Journal. They reveal an inspiring lack of rancor and give us insight into an astute, conservative social observer. Considering both the viciousness of the campaign against him and a conviction based on flimsy and contradictory evidence alongside his decidedly politically incorrect views on political issues such as Brexit and global warming, on full display in the three-volume journal, raises the question of whether Cardinal Pell was the victim of not only an anti-Catholic but also an anti-conservative witch hunt.
The origins of the crisis
In order to understand the controversy surrounding Cardinal Pell’s case, we have to look at the history of the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church and the attention given to it by the media and public. Although this issue made headlines in Ireland, Austria, and, to a lesser extent, the United States in the 1990s, it truly exploded as a global news topic in 2002. Twenty years ago, the Boston Globe ran a series of stories on the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Boston Archdiocese and their coverup by Cardinal Bernard Law. That same year, George Weigel published The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. In his book, Weigel argues that sexual abuse of minors is not an issue unique to the Catholic Church; rather, these horrible cases occurred because of the zeitgeist of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In those decades, a growing number of seminarians, inspired by cultural and political Marxism, chose to reject the Church’s ancient teaching on chastity in favor of countercultural libertine sexual philosophy.
It is not incidental that two of the biggest intellectual figures of this counterculture advocated for the legalization of sexual relations between children and adults and were active pedophiles: Michel Foucault and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was a member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). While not child abusers themselves, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir also publicly campaigned for the decriminalization of pedophilia.
The mainstream media’s diagnosis of the crisis of sexual abuse by Catholic priests greatly differs from that proposed by George Weigel. The dominant view is perhaps best epitomized by the 2015 film Spotlight, which tells the story of the Boston Globe reporters who covered the scandal in Boston.
In Spotlight, the ‘expert’ on clerical sexual abuse is an ex-priest, Richard Sipe, whose disembodied voice counsels the reporters over the phone. Sipe draws a link between celibacy and pedophilia, claiming that, because few Catholic priests take their vows of chastity seriously (he provided no evidence for this claim), priests never attempt to stop sexual abuse by their fellow clergymen out of fear that their own violations of celibacy would be exposed. Sipe also claims that there is no link between homosexuality and sexual abuse.
However, research sides with Weigel rather than the liberal media and Hollywood. In 2004, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice published a report on the sexual abuse of minors in the American Catholic Church. While the report was commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the John Jay College is a purely secular institution with no interest in justifying the misdeeds of Catholic priests. The report revealed that a whopping 81% of victims of abuse were male; just 22% of those victims were pre-pubescent. In other words, a careful reading of the results of this study clearly demonstrates that this was overwhelmingly a crisis of homosexual pederasty rather than pedophilia.
While the media has focused on the Catholic Church, in recent years it has emerged that denominations that have no tradition of clerical celibacy also have histories of sexual abuse. To cite just two examples, in the Church of England, 390 clerics were convicted of abuse between 1940 and 2018, as were 220 Southern Baptist pastors, Sunday school teachers, and workers. In both churches, these crimes were routinely covered up.
The Church’s and the media’s response
Ever since this crisis became known, the Catholic Church has taken steps to prevent clerical abuse and coverups. It cannot be a coincidence that in the United States at least, new cases of clerical molestation have declined in the past two decades of increasingly stringent policies. According to the John Jay Report, cases were low in the 1950s, but began to surge in the 1960s. They peaked in the 1970s, began to decline in the 1980s, and are now marginal.
In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. The document’s procedural norms demanded that all bishops report cases of sexual abuse against minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; raised the age of consent according to canon law from 16 to 18, higher than in virtually all Western nations’ civil legislation; and extended the statute of limitations to ten years after the victim turns 18 (previously, it had been five years after the crime) with a possibility for no statute of limitations in more serious cases.
The Vatican’s response was greatly bolstered by Pope Francis, whose 2016 apostolic letter Come una madre amorevole stated that negligence in dealing with sexual abuse cases is reason enough for a bishop’s removal. In 2019, the pope issued Vos estis lux mundi, which provides detailed procedures for trying and punishing bishops for improperly dealing with abuse in their jurisdiction. Since then, dozens of bishops from around the world have been removed from office or, if retired, sanctioned by the Vatican. The Southern Baptists and Anglicans are years behind the Catholic Church in responding to this crisis. This is not because they are less moral, but because this problem was publicly scrutinized much later in those churches.
Thus, we have a paradoxical situation in which, on the one hand, the Catholic Church has done perhaps more than any other institution whose members regularly work with youths to combat sexual abuse and their coverup, and, on the other, the Church receives the most ridicule and hatred for its record on the matter.
Numerous prelates have been publicly accused and sometimes imprisoned under false charges of sexual abuse or coverup. In the 1990s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was accused of having sexually abused a young man in the 1970s; later, his accuser recanted the charges. In 2019, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons was sentenced to six months of house arrest for allegedly failing to report a case of abuse to the authorities; the following year, an appellate court cleared him of these charges. In 2020, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn was accused of having abused a youth; a probe by an investigative firm led by Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, revealed that the charges were balderdash.
Yet the victim of the most spectacular case of a false claim of abuse by a prelate was Cardinal George Pell.
Pell and the Australian state media
In 2019, a jury in Melbourne found Cardinal Pell guilty of having abused two choristers in the 1990s. The cardinal was sentenced to six years in solitary confinement, despite many holes in the plaintiff’s case. While numerous eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Pell greeting parishioners exiting the Melbourne cathedral during the alleged abuse, the accusers claimed he was raping them in the sacristy at the time. They said that Pell had parted his alb during the alleged abuse, but that was impossible as it had no parting. During the trial, the accusers changed details of their story more than twenty times.
Yet despite this, the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) engaged in an intense campaign against Cardinal Pell and the Church. In his journal, Pell remarks that the ABC never mentioned his surname without prefacing it with “convicted pedophile” or “disgraced.” In August 2019, the Supreme Court of Victoria rejected Pell’s appeal by a 2-1 decision. In April 2020, however, Australia’s High Court unanimously found him innocent by a decision of 7-0.
Stoic Christian witness
Despite all of this, Pell’s diary is completely free of rancor for his unfair trial. Naturally, as the date of the first appeal and, especially, the second—if the High Court had rejected his appeal, he could not have been exonerated—approached, Cardinal Pell expressed anxiety. Yet he emphasizes that he is less concerned with his own well-being than he is with the reputation of the Church and judicial system in Australia. He writes:
This Church dimension is more important than my personal story, because my exoneration will lift the spirits of loyal Catholics and those who are zealous for the good reputation of the law in Australia. This is one black mark the Church does not deserve.
Cardinal Pell treated his time in prison as a kind of spiritual and intellectual retreat. In fact, at some points the reader might even think that, to an extent, he enjoyed his time in solitary confinement! The biggest cross for him to bear was not that the ABC routinely falsely accused him of being a pedophile, that he was confined to a claustrophobic cell for a crime he never committed, or that fellow prisoners regularly hurled vulgar abuse at him, but that he was unable to celebrate the Mass.
Each day, Cardinal Pell prayed the rosary and read voraciously. His time in prison allowed him to read War and Peace and Leviathan. However, it is not coincidental that Pell focused more on the writings of St. Thomas More, sentenced to death by King Henry VIII for refusing to reject the Catholic Church, and Vietnamese Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent more than a decade in communist prisons, much of it in solitary confinement. Pell undoubtedly sought inspiration amidst unfair persecution, but he always emphasizes that his trials were insignificant compared to those of such saintly figures. He notes that as late as the 1990s, many prison cells in Melbourne used buckets instead of toilets; instead, the greatest material discomfort he suffered was the fact that his lunch was usually cold.
Two of Cardinal Pell’s numerous correspondents sent him articles on Catholic bishops imprisoned and tortured in communist Czechoslovakia and under Guinea’s military socialist dictatorship of Ahmed Sékou Touré. In addition to admiring the tenacity of their faith, Pell writes:
Closer to home, my situation in jail could not be more different from that of the two bishops. I am well fed, warm, with my own power, able to pray, write, read, and watch television, including the religious programs. Perhaps most importantly because I am in solitary, the guards are decent human beings, humane.
Indeed, Cardinal Pell found positives in his imprisonment. Apart from finding more time to pray and read books that had been previously collecting dust on his shelf, he was grateful for the enormous flow of supportive letters. In one of his last diary entries before his acquittal, Pell notes that he received 3,500 letters, only “half a dozen” of which were hostile. He also notes that many priests in Sydney and Melbourne wrote to him that their Sunday congregations had swelled since his trial, while many lapsed Catholics wrote that they were so appalled by his unfair treatment that they returned to the sacraments.
In his preface to the first volume of Pell’s diary, George Weigel compares Cardinal Pell to Alfred Dreyfus, the French-Jewish officer falsely accused of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a remote penal colony, until it emerged that he was the victim of an antisemitic campaign and was acquitted. Although Weigel points out similarities between the mob hatred that led to the unjust imprisonment of Pell and Dreyfus, he emphasizes Pell’s conditions were incomparably less unpleasant than Devil’s Island.
However, one major difference between Pell and Dreyfus or the Vietnamese dry martyr Cardinal Văn Thuận was that the latter were sentenced either out of ethnic bigotry or for opposition to dictatorial regimes, making them heroes. During Dreyfus’ imprisonment and trial, France was divided into the ‘Dreyfusards’ and ‘anti-Dreyfusards.’ The former included prominent figures like Emile Zola. In cases like those of Cardinal Thuận, even non-believers often feel sympathy for clerics jailed by oppressive regimes. However, someone accused of pedophilia will be widely reviled.
In Australia, Cardinal Pell did have supporters, and they were not necessarily Catholic (for example, the Victoria Supreme Court justice who wrote a dissenting opinion, Mark Weinberg, is Jewish, while one of Pell’s main defenders in the press and on television was journalist Andrew Bolt, a self-professed agnostic). However, the bulk of the media and academic establishment was against him.
A witch hunt?
This leads to the question of what the motivations of the media were in demonizing Cardinal Pell. His journal is not a solely religious work. He provides commentary on many secular events, usually in audacious defiance of the dogmas of political correctness. Pell writes, for instance, that, as a half-English Australian, he ardently supported Brexit, which expressed the British people’s desire for freedom from meddlesome, oppressive EU bureaucrats. He criticized the Orwellian absurdity in that while the British electorate had democratically voted to leave the EU, the Labour Party did everything to annul the referendum’s result in the name of protecting democracy. He also wrote that the West’s obsession with climate change has become a pagan religion and notes that over millions of years, the earth has gone through successive periods of warming and cooling temperatures.
His highly conservative opinions lead me to wonder: if Pell had been a progressive churchman, would Australia’s liberal media have not pursued him so relentlessly amidst questionable charges?
Regardless, I wish that Cardinal Pell’s acquittal would lead the establishment to conclude that they have gone too far and rethink its dyed-in-the-wool anti-Catholicism. Yet history does not make me optimistic. Alfred Dreyfus’ 1906 acquittal by no means dented antisemitism in Europe. Pell’s diary quotes a supremely insightful statement by Australian journalist Christopher Akehurst:
The Left has been very successful at exploiting child abuse. The sins of a small minority of flawed individuals have been seized upon to paint the Church as rotten to the core, so that its moral opposition to the Left’s social agenda, especially in such matters as abortion, will by dismissed by public opinion as hypocritical.
I expect the left-liberal media to continue operating in this way in the foreseeable future. Yet Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal provides an inspiring example of how to calmly endure these attacks while loving our persecutors. Perhaps his serene approach can show our post-Christian civilization the beauty of Christian love and forgiveness. It might inspire Westerners to emerge from spiritual lethargy.