In an exclusive interview Cardinal George Pell shares new details of his prison experience and reasons for hope
The Truth, Justice and Healing Council set up by the Church in Australia at the beginning of the Royal Commission into institutional abuse in 2013 failed seriously to highlight the Church’s decisive record in combatting abuse in this country beginning a quarter of a century ago, Cardinal George Pell said this week.
His criticism came in a wide-ranging pre-recorded interview aired at a Catholic conference in the US on 16 August.
During the interview Cardinal Pell discussed his prayer life in prison and how he had been able to remain spiritually focused despite knowing his own innocence, the support he had received via correspondence from ordinary Catholics around the world, the Vatican’s financial situation and the associated problem of corruption within key institutions.
He also revealed his concerns over aspects of the Synod on the Amazon conducted last October and discussed signs of renewal in the Church – including new Church realities such as Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way – and the importance of the Catholic Church in the US to the future of Catholicism around the world.
“The crooks” have largely been run out of Vatican financial institutions or denied access to them but vigilance is required to prevent corruption and inefficiences that have been endemic in the past, he said.
Truth, Justice and Healing Council’s ‘significant error’
Regarding the Truth, Justice and Healing Commission, he said it had “made a significant error in not explaining to people – it might have been unpopular – that in fact the ‘old’ Church, from the middle nineties, had acted resolutely and effectively, to impede this plague, to prevent the offenses continuing,” he said in the 30-minute interview conducted in Sydney for a conference organised by the NAPA Institute, a California–based think tank focusing on the Catholic Church.
There was no denying the crimes that were committed, that they were infamous and had been poorly handled by Church authorities, he said, “but in Australia we broke the back of the offending in the middle 90s,” a fact that had even been acknowledged by counsel assisting the Royal Commission during its proceeding.
Catholics would be astonished to know how little offending had actually occurred in recent decades, he said.
“I heard of a public meeting where a friend of mine who actually knew what was going on asked the authorities in that diocese ‘how many offenses in that diocese have you had in Catholic institutions this century?’ And there were none or almost none. And the Catholic audience there was stupefied,” he told The Catholic Weekly columnist Monica Doumit.
Dealing with jail
The major change to his spiritual life had been not being able to celebrate the Eucharist each day, he said. Unable to offer the Mass for the intentions of others as he ordinarily would, he instead prayed the Memorarae, a prayer seeking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as individual requests came to him.
“In jail you’ve got no excuse that you’re too busy to pray,” he said. “I had a regular prayer routine of the Breviary, meditation and I followed spiritual reading generally every day. And on Sunday I watched Mass For You At Home at the impossible hour of six o’clock in the morning.
“Then I watched the American evangelists Joseph Prince from California and Joel Osteen from Texas. And in my journal I’d make a theological critique of their efforts – but both of them are very fine preachers and they’ve got big followings.”
Support from around the world
He estimated he had received around 4,000 letters in jail but had almost-exclusively limited himself to responding – against legal advice – to fellow prisoners. He had done this because he felt it was his duty as a priest, he said.
People from all over the world and every background in life had written to him during his jail time, including two women in Texas. Their letters had been “very stimulating and beautiful, interesting, letters. They gave me something to ‘chew on’ theologically and spiritually,” he said.
He estimated he had received around 4,000 letters in jail but had almost-exclusively limited himself to responding – against legal advice – to fellow prisoners
He stayed abreast of world events through reading a Melbourne newspaper three times a week and watching SBS world news broadcast each evening.
“So I was pretty well abreast of things and people would send me cuttings. Friends sent me loads of articles,” he said.
The journal that almost wasn’t
He also focused on recording his daily thoughts but had come close to not doing this as he had initially assumed he would not be imprisoned for long.
“I kept myself occupied and I wrote my journal. I thought I would be in for three or so months so I wrote three pages a day, which I roughly estimated would give me a book of 250 pages. But I was there 13 months! I nearly considered not writing, but I’m glad I did. It was good therapy and [I thought] I might have something to say that can help people.”
The first volume of Cardinal Pell’s prison memoirs is due for publication by Ignatius Press in 2021.
Amazon Synod concerns
He admitted he had concerns over the Synod for the Amazon held at the Vatican last October but that not as much damage had been done as he had feared was possible.
“I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to turn out and in the end the results weren’t too bad,” he said.
“I felt that some of the people who were given leadership in the preparation of the Synod – one bishop who’d never converted a local resident in all his decades as a missionary – I found one or two of those things quite remarkable. But the end result was that, as far as I could see, there wasn’t too much damage done.”
Vatican financial problems
On the Vatican’s current financial state and the problem of corruption which has plagued it, he said the coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated an-already serious financial problem.
His successor at the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy had told him the Vatican was losing $A70 million a year before the pandemic had struck. Meanwhile, the Vatican Museums which have now been shut down since the pandemic struck Italy would normally bring in revenue of A$80-100 million a year .
“Now that’s almost completely gone,” he said, adding “it’s a little bit graphic to say that the Vatican’s going broke, because it isn’t. It does have … not a big patrimony … it would be less than some of the big American universities, considerably less as a patrimony. But you can’t keep losing money at the rate they are at the moment forever … That is the very fundamental reality.”
Meanwhile, he said, it is public knowledge that the Vatican has “a looming, very considerable deficit in the pension fund – and nearly every other country in Europe has that too – but that’s not much consolation.
“Now I’m well out if it, I’m two or three years behind what people are thinking, but at least in the public sense, I haven’t seen any suggestions that would really address what is a significant financial challenge,” he said.
Dealing with corruption and inneficiency
He said there is no doubt the Vatican has “been bedevilled over the years by inefficiency and corruption. The London property deal is probably an example of both, certainly an example of inefficiency at best.”
The deal he referred to is currently being investigated by Vatican authorities inquiring into how the Vatican’s Secretariat of State used approximately A$270 million to finance a property development project in London’s Chelsea district in 2014.
But “because the Church is not a business it doesn’t mean there’s any justification for it to be run inefficiently or not to be very strong and vigilant against corruption.”
He said he believed “most of the crooks are out of the system [although] you can never be quite sure. But of course you’ve got to be very vigilant. So I’ve got every confidence in my successor. They’re heading in the right direction, but that promise has got to be brought to fruit.
“They’ve just appointed a new Finance Council – half the appointees, almost, are highly-qualified women – so I’m optimistic that they will have a good look at the situation and take a very firm stand on what are the basic issues and not be distracted into theorising or short-term consolations. So I have a qualified optimism.”
Serious challenges – but signs of renewal
He said there is no doubt the Church throughout the western world faces a serious situation demographically and politically, but he remains optimistic and sees signs of renewal especially in new Church realities such as Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way.
Opus Dei, founded in post-Spanish Civil War Spain by St Josemaria Escriva, focuses on helping youth and adults to discover and live sanctity via friendship with God. The Neocatechumenal Way, founded also in Spain in 1968, focuses on building small communities following a path of formation towards an adult faith, with a strong emphasis on coming to know the Word of God and its associated themes in Scripture.
“In many parts of the world – such as in Africa – the Church is going ahead,” Cardinal Pell said. But we’re under pressure in many places, especially in the western world. There is a steady erosion but if that’s the price we have to pay to maintain Gospel purity in our teachings then it’s the price we will pay.
The path to irrelevance
The path to irrelevance for the Church is already obvious, he said.
“The irony of it is – and its 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.”
However if the Church remains faithful to Christ, he said, there’s always the chance that new forces of renewal and leadership will arise.
“I think this happened already in the last century through Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenal Way, just as it did in the 16th Century with the Jesuits, in the 13th Century the Dominicans and the Franciscans, and earlier with the Benedictines. God is with us and God’s providence is at work and that’s much more likely to work if we’re struggling to do what he wants,” he said.
Suffering turned to higher goals
Reflecting on his experience of more than 400 days in prison for a crime he never committed, he said it was his Christian faith and formation that had prevented him from succumbing to bitterness.
“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 also received support from unexpected quarters. “I got a letter from a long-term prisoner who said that ‘the consensus amongst the career criminals is that you’ve been stitched up, that of course you’re innocent!’ And he said ‘isn’t it strange that the criminals can see this and the judges can’t?’ I understand that,” he said.
Asked what had kept him from becoming bitter at the injustice he suffered he said both his Christian faith and Christian teaching “and probably a recognition that even from a secular human point of view bitterness is corrosive and damaging.”
“Not being bitter is a little bit like faith,” he said. “It’s not something you can put in your pocket and its there forever. You have to continue to pray that your faith will remain strong and you have to pray and be vigilant that you don’t lapse into a self-centred bitterness and become hostile and very cross with this or that. But it was my Christian teaching above all that urged me in the right direction on these issues.”
US Church key to the future
He said he wanted to remind his US audience how important the Church in the US is for world Catholicism and western civilisation.
Despite the scandals in Church leadership, which had been “deeply wounding”, many parts of the Church in the US are offering a way forward in the present crisis. He nominated US bishops such as Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and former Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George OMI who passed away in 2015, as outstanding examples of Church leadership and vision in the present era.
Describing himself as a great friend and ally of the United State but not an uncritical observer he reminded his audience of the centrality and vitality of the Catholic Church in the US to the the western world.
“[US Catholicism] is vitally important for us in smaller countries, we rely on you for your scholarship, your leadership … the pastoral strategies that you implement and prove to be successful will be watched and imitated by us,” he said.