THE child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church is a “spiritual and moral cancer” that must be turned into an opportunity for renewal, the Australian Cardinal George Pell has said.
Cardinal Pell was convicted of child sexual abuse in 2018, but unanimously acquitted 14 months ago by the Supreme Court in Australia (News, 9 April 2020). He had been sentenced to six years in prison on a charge of sexually abusing two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1996, when he was the RC Archbishop of Melbourne (News, 23 August 2019).
In an interview with Vatican News on his 80th birthday on Tuesday, Cardinal Pell said that “a combination of circumstances, lies, and deceit” had landed him prison — a place that he had never thought he would be. He had, he said, forgiven his accuser: one of the former choirboys, on whose evidence both the Victorian County Court and the Court of Appeal based their judgments. (The second boy died in 2014, before the allegations were reported to police.)
“I must admit that sometimes it was difficult,” he said in the interview. “But, once I made the decision to forgive, everything else followed. For me, it was not so difficult to forgive the person who accused me. I knew that he was a person who had suffered and was in great confusion and who knows what else.”
During his time in prison, Cardinal Pell, who has always maintained his innocence, kept a daily diary, the first 400-page volume of which has now been published in Italian. It covers the period from 27 February to 13 July 2019.
He explained: “I thought it might be helpful for those who are in difficulty, for those who are going through a time of suffering, like I was. Then I thought that keeping a diary would be of some interest from a historical point of view, because there weren’t many cardinals who had the experience of prison. Also, because I had discovered that many prisoners had dedicated themselves to writing, starting — in the Catholic sphere — with St Paul. Writing when you are in prison is good therapy.”
Prayer, faith, and a belief in providence were “fundamental” during his imprisonment, he said. “They helped me to completely change the perspective during those days of detention. . . My experience shows how much the Church’s teachings help us, how much praying and seeking God’s grace helps. Especially when we understand that we can live our personal suffering for the greater good, that we can associate our suffering with that of Jesus.
“As Christians, we know that we have been redeemed by the Passion and death of the Son of God. Living this teaching on the value of suffering really changes everything when you find yourself in a situation like mine.”
Cardinal Pell was in solitary confinement for his personal protection, and had not seen or met the 11 other prisoners in his section until his last four months in prison, he said. “Most of the time I could only hear the anger, the anguish, of my fellow prisoners, without having any personal relationship.”
He had, however, listened to the prayers of Muslim inmates. “The theological conceptions of Christians and Muslims are obviously different, but we all pray in different ways to the same God. There is no God of Muslims, Christians, or other religions: there is only one God.”
Cardinal Pell said that the experience had taught him the importance of “perseverance . . . simple things, like faith, forgiveness, the redemption of suffering. Usually, when you live in prison, you are forced to confront the fundamental issues of life, the simple and fundamental things. This also happened to me, and I must say that, thanks be to God, I survived.”
He agreed that the sex-abuse scandal in the RC Church was an opportunity for renewal. “It must be,” he said. “We cannot continue in the same vein. It is a kind of spiritual and moral cancer. It seems to me that here in Australia we have worked seriously to eradicate it, but it is a duty for all priests and all bishops in the world to ensure that these scandals do not happen again.
“Too much suffering, too much pain. The phenomenon of abuse in the Church shows once again that we have often not followed the teachings of Jesus. If we had followed the commandments of the Decalogue, none of this would have happened.”