Skip to content

Cardinal's prison diary explores suffering, solitary lockup

ROME — Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted and then acquitted of sexual abuse in his native Australia, reflects on the nature of suffering, Pope Francis’ papacy and the humiliations of solitary confinement in his jailhouse memoir, according to an

ROME — Cardinal George Pell, who was convicted and then acquitted of sexual abuse in his native Australia, reflects on the nature of suffering, Pope Francis’ papacy and the humiliations of solitary confinement in his jailhouse memoir, according to an advance copy obtained by The Associated Press.

“Prison Journal," which recounts the first five months of Pell’s 404 days in solitary lockup, also provides a play-by-play of Pell’s legal case and gives personal insights into one of the most divisive figures in the Catholic hierarchy today. To his supporters and even some detractors, Pell is a victim of a terrific perversion of justice; to his critics, he is the symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the Catholic Church’s wretched response to clergy sexual abuse.

Due out Dec. 15, the book likely won’t budge anyone from either camp, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless. It is at times a spiritual meditation, a defiant assertion of innocence and a morbidly voyeuristic view into the daily grind of prison life — all of it narrated by a man who for a time was one of the most powerful Catholic cardinals in the world.

“Prison Journal: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal” is the first volume of a set being published by Ignatius Press, the U.S.-based Catholic publisher, which has made no secret that it hopes sales will help Pell pay his sizeable legal bills.

Pell left his job as the Vatican treasurer in 2017 to face charges in Australia that he sexually molested two 13-year-old choir boys in the sacristy of the Melbourne cathedral in 1996. After a first jury deadlocked, a second unanimously convicted him and he was sentenced to six years in prison. The conviction was upheld on appeal only to be thrown out by Australia’s High Court, which in April found there was reasonable doubt in the testimony of his lone accuser.

Pell’s trial took place against the backdrop of Australia’s reckoning with decades of child sexual abuse brought to light by the years-long Royal Commission inquiry into institutional abuse, which found that 7% of Australia’s Catholic priests raped and molested children. For many of his supporters, Pell was convicted as a scapegoat for all the church’s sins.

Pell, though, had been dogged for years by allegations that he mishandled cases of abusive clergy when he was archbishop of Melbourne and later Sydney. Specifically, he was accused of creating a victims' compensation program in Melbourne mainly to protect the church’s assets and of using aggressive tactics to discourage victims’ lawsuits.

Pell repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has apologized to victims for what he called the “profoundly evil” actions of predatory priests. He has defended his record, though he has described some of his encounters with victims as unfortunate. He strongly denied he ever abused the choirboys.

“The pedophilia crisis remains the greatest blow the church has suffered in Australia,” Pell writes in his diary. “If anyone in the mid-nineties knew the extent of the problem, they did not say so publicly, or to me privately. We thought the Melbourne Response would finish its work in a few years.”

The book begins Feb. 27, 2019, on Pell’s first day in prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement primarily to protect himself from other inmates. A diligent reporter with a lot of time on his hands, Pell describes his daily routine in all its tedium: the humiliation of strip searches, the profanities shouted by prisoners he never sees, the requests for a broom to sweep his cell that go unmet.

But Pell also appreciates the occasional joys: the tea kettle and TV he is allowed in his cell, an extra glass of milk from a guard, the sun during his daily hour of outdoor exercise. He lives for visits, phone calls and letters from friends and strangers alike offering support and prayers — and, from a handful of prisoner pen pals who offer advice on coping with detention.

The reader also gets to know a man who, at least to outsiders, has been depicted as a monster or martyr in equal measure. It turns out Pell, a former rugby player, is besotted with his nieces and nephews, has a thing for Winx, a champion thoroughbred, and likes to play Sudoku but finds the challenging games at the end of the game book too hard.

Pell watches a lot of TV — 6 a.m. Mass in the morning since he can’t celebrate on his own — as well as his beloved rugby matches and news coverage. He weighs in on everything from the failed marriage of Charles and Diana to U.S. President Donald Trump, who he says is “a bit of a barbarian, but in some important ways, he is ‘our’ Christian barbarian.”

He meticulously chronicles meetings with his lawyers, positive coverage of his case in the Australian and U.S. media and details of his legal strategy, insisting that it’s not “antivictim” to require victims to prove their cases in court.

The book offers plenty of gossipy insights into the Vatican’s inner workings and Pell's own “thwarted and inconclusive" efforts at reforming the Holy See's finances. It makes some not-so-thinly veiled criticism of the current pontificate and its emphasis on the church as a field hospital for wounded souls, as opposed to a school of orthodoxy which Pell champions.

Pell laments, for example, that at two of Francis’ big meetings on the family, “some voices loudly proclaimed that the church was a hospital or a port of refuge. This is only one image of the church and far from the most useful or important, because the church has to show how not to become sick, how to avoid shipwrecks, and here the commandments are essential.”

He closes each day with a prayer, for his friends, family, prisoners, guards and victims of abuse.

Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press