‘I never expected to lose,’ Catholic Cardinal Pell, who was jailed on sex abuse and then freed, tells Tribune

Australian prelate visits Utah, insists the church is “here to stay.”

(Gregorio Borgia | AP) Australian Cardinal George Pell is interviewed at the Vatican, Thursday, May 20, 2021. Pell, who was convicted and then acquitted of sex abuse charges in his native Australia, is in Utah promoting his latest book.

Catholic Cardinal George Pell of Australia was found guilty of child sex abuse in December 2018 and spent 404 days in solitary confinement at a Melbourne prison.

During that time, he recorded what he was thinking, feeling and reading — until that conviction was overturned in April 2020.

Pell now has turned his prison ruminations into a three-volume memoir. The 80-year-old cardinal was in Park City this week to speak about the latest edition, “Prison Journal, Volume 3: The High Court Frees an Innocent Man.”

He sat down for an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. The following has been edited for length and clarity:

How did you feel when you first heard the accusations in 2017 against you?

Oh, I was very worried and aghast. It was a very difficult time. You almost feel physically unwell.

Were you in Rome at the time?

Yes, yes, yes.

So then you went back to face these charges in Australia. Can you briefly tell us about that first trial? What was it like for you?

The first trial went on for quite some time. I never expected to lose it. I mean, there were no supporting witnesses for the complainant. There were about 20 witnesses being called by the prosecution, but most of them gave evidence against the complainant. Not just my lawyers, but the other lawyers believed that I couldn’t be convicted. After the first trial, there was a hung jury. I think they were out for four or five days. … They couldn’t agree. That was a blow to the complainant, who did not want the matter to go forward. He wrote to the authorities to that effect; he was quite happy just to be left to drop it. In their wisdom or otherwise, the police and the prosecutors decided to go ahead for a second trial.

You had lots of folks speaking on your behalf?

I had a very strong constituency, very committed and often people who very much knew the case. But there had been a lot of troubles in Australia with pedophilia. There was a Royal Commission, which ran for some years, investigating all the institutions, not just Catholic institutions. … They revealed that, in some cases, the bishops had not handled the matter well. And so this provoked a very strong reaction in the general public against the crimes and against the inadequate way that was sometimes dealt with. One of the things we could have done better was to have pointed out to the Royal Commission and to the general populace that we had broken the back of the problem in terms of provoking a dramatic, dramatic decrease in the number of crimes from the early to the middle ‘90s. By international standards, the Australian authorities in 1996-97 were early interventionists. But I don’t think we did ourselves any favors by not pointing this out vigorously. … Some people were saying, “He very well might be innocent, but the Catholic Church deserves to take a knock. It’s appropriate that someone suffers a bit like a scapegoat.”

During your time in prison, did you have a computer in your cell to write your memoir?

No, no, no. It was all handwritten on three rather big yellow pads. I wrote three pages, plus or minus, every day.

(Andy Brownbill | AP) Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, in 2019. Pell is in Utah promoting his latest book.

Did you have a TV in your room?

Yes, it was a bit luxurious. I had a TV, and I also had a shower and a toilet. My cell was 7 or 9 meters long, 2½ meters wide. I had a decent bed with a firm base. The food — there was too much, but it was adequate. Somebody said that must have been horrendous and wasn’t horrendous, it was dull and unpleasant. But many people have suffered much, much more than I do. I mean, it was an Australian, a Western world jail, and they’re pretty civilized places.

You were allowed visitors, including Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister?

You could have a list of 10 visitors and you could change that. Sometimes it was difficult to do so, but you can have visitors twice a week. So my friends and family were very, very good. One or two people flew from Europe to see me, which was spectacularly good and kind.

And you played pingpong?

Just by myself but not with other prisoners. I was in isolation. You put up the second half of the table, you make it upright, then you could hit it and it will come back.

What other privileges did you have?

Originally, each day I was allowed out two half-hours in a grotty little area that was half sealed above you. You could see through the bars of the sky and sometimes the sun. It certainly wasn’t any beautiful botanical garden, even the garden below. Apparently, according to international law, those in isolation are entitled to an hour in the fresh air every day. I preferred to take mine in two half-hours if I could.

Did your thinking about prison change after having this experience?

Oh, yes, I didn’t really know what to expect. In some ways, I was a bit pleasantly surprised. Certainly by the decency of the guards...that many were quite friendly and all of them were just and cordial. And as far as I could hear in the isolation section, there were 11 other prisoners, some of them very, very difficult people and damaged people. I think the guards there did a good job as far as I could hear.

What were you thinking when you heard that your conviction was overturned?

I was absolutely delighted. I knew rationally and logically that it should have been like that but, given that so much had gone against me, nothing was certain. I have friends that have been writing to me regularly and one was in another part of the jail. I heard him give an enormous cheer. So I punched the air and then said Te Deum, which is the Christian prayer of thanks.

How long after you heard the result were you released?

Very soon, a matter of an hour or an hour and a half. When I got out, two helicopters followed me all the way up to where I stayed at a convent in Melbourne. Then, the next day, I left for Sydney and I had the press following me all the way.

What do you think now about your accusers? Would you like to see them punished?

One of them is dead, and I don’t know whether it would add much to have [the other one] punished. I really don’t know how much of the accusation that was made was fiction, how much of it was fantasy, whether something happened with somebody else and that was applied to myself. But there was not even a residual encounter [with the man later]. ...Fascinatingly, in Rolling Stone magazine, a parallel case, the “Billy Doe” case in Philadelphia, was publicized in Australia. It had maybe seven or eight similarities with my story. But whether that was the basis on which the story was put together, I really don’t know. But I don’t think anybody going to jail would add much.

Was your faith affected by this experience?

Well, of course, it’s got to be challenged. As a priest, I tried to help people in many different kinds of situations and sometimes in deeply unjust situations. I remember some of the things I said to other people and I said, “Well, I’ve got to apply them to myself.” So I used to say to teenagers that if you don’t pray when you’re in trouble, probably your faith is pretty, pretty weak. So I prayed for help. And I said to many people over the years, when they wondered just why they were stricken with misfortune, I said, “Well, you know, Jesus was God, and he certainly didn’t get around these, either.”

After being jailed, you returned to the Vatican and saw its financial corruption crisis there, right?

I’m not involved in an official position right now. But, you know, I follow these things, and I think they’re making a bit of progress. The court case is due to restart ... so we’ll see.

Do you have a role in it?

No, I don’t even have a vote in the next conclave because I’m already over 80, so I’m well and truly retired.

(Vatican News via AP) Cardinal George Pell talks with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. The pope warmly welcomed Pell for a private audience after the cardinal’s sex abuse acquittal in Australia.

What are you doing now?

At the moment, I’m in the states, and I’m going here and there, helping to sell the book, seeing friends. I’ve been to the United States many times, but there are many parts I haven’t been to like Utah and Arizona, where I’m going soon. American hospitality is justly renowned. ... After this, I’ll go back and catch my breath in Rome.

Did your time in prison affect your view about the future of the church at all?

I’ve been a bishop since 1987, so I’m constantly interested in the future of the church. In prison, I was able to read quite a bit, and I kept up with the news. … I gave a talk in Oxford just before I came here, and I said the first thing everybody needs to understand — first of all ourselves — is that [the Catholic Church ] is here to stay. We aren’t going anywhere. We’ve received for over 2000 years a very precious heritage of doctrines and a way of living, and we’ve got to hang on to that and pass it on to the next generation because it’s immensely useful and helps human beings thrive.

Are you hopeful that the church will be able to do that?

Yes, of course, absolutely. We’re losing a few people over here. ...We’re going through a hard patch just at the moment, but we’ll pull through that, provided we hang on to the basic teachings of Christ. Leaders will emerge, reform movements will emerge.

If you had to do anything over again, would you do something different?

I’m not sure that I would. I mean, hindsight can be very useful. I got clearer about the legal argumentation and was made clearer about the story. There are still many stories, many aspects. I think there probably was a conspiracy against me. But just how and where and why we still don’t know. But we know much more than we used to.