Cardinal George Pell is pictured in a screen grab during an interview that aired April 14 on Sky News Australia.Catholic News Service

Cardinal Pell says prayer and knowledge of his innocence sustained him

Cardinal George Pell, whose conviction on five counts of sexual abuse was overturned by Australia’s highest court, said in in his first television interview his knowledge that he was innocent and the prayers of thousands of people helped him during his 405 days in prison.

The cardinal spoke to Andrew Bolt of Sky News Australia, a conservative cable television station, April 11. The interview aired April 14, a week after the High Court of Australia unanimously said that in relation to all five charges, of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996, “there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted.”

Noting the Christian teaching that suffering has value, Cardinal Pell said, “You can get meaning out of the most terrible suffering.”

“You’ve never said, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” Bolt asked.

“No, but I have said, ‘My God, my God, what are you up to?'” Cardinal Pell replied with a chuckle.

The interview was interspersed with commentary by Bolt, who criticized Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC; Victoria Police, “who charged Pell with a crime he could not possible have committed”; and the Victoria Court of Appeal.

“This is an extraordinary case when neither the alleged criminal nor the alleged victim could have been at the alleged crime,” Bolt said.

In December 2018, a jury found Cardinal Pell guilty on the five counts of abuse. The Victoria Court of Appeal upheld that verdict in a 2-1 decision, but the seven judges of the High Court overturned the ruling.

In the Sky News interview, Cardinal Pell said he had “no anger, no hostility toward my complainant.”

“Something might have happened by someone else in some other place and its transferred into this impossible scenario,” he said. He also said, “I wonder whether he was used.”

He noted that 30 or 40 years ago, the pendulum swung massively against anyone who said they had been attacked by a priest. Now, “we don’t want it to swing back so that every accusation is regarded as Gospel truth.”

“I don’t think that the church has got enough credit that we broke the back of this thing, that offending stopped — not completely … in the middle ’90s,” he said.

In mid-2017, Cardinal Pell took leave from his position as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, which was investigating corruption in Vatican finances, so he could return to Australia to face the abuse charges. His term as head of the secretariat expired in 2019.

Bolt noted that years earlier, when he interviewed Cardinal Pell in Rome, the cardinal talked about the corruption he had found and expressed concern for the safety of his staff. He noted that the cardinal told him the Mafia might be involved and that one cardinal had been found with a suitcase full of cash.

“Have you ever considered that the trouble you were causing to corrupt officials in the Vatican was related to the troubles that have since happened to you here?” Bolt asked him.

Cardinal Pell said most of the senior people in Rome who are sympathetic to financial reform believe the abuse charges against him were related to his investigations, but he had no proof of that. He said he was surprised that his theological opponents in Rome did not believe the accusations, and he said he felt supported by Pope Francis throughout the process.

Cardinal Pell’s trial and appeal is estimated by lawyers to have cost millions of dollars, but he said the church did not pay for it. He said it was paid for by “a lot of very generous people,” some of whom were wealthy, and he dipped into his own retirement savings.

Asked if he had nothing left, the cardinal said, “I couldn’t quite say that, but I’ve got considerably less than I had.”

Asked what he would do next, the cardinal said he was 14 years past the retirement age in Australia. “I won’t be commenting much at all on Australian Catholic life.”

“I might have a little bit more to say internationally,” he added. He said he would stay in Sydney to do some writing and reading, and “I might go to Rome for a while.”

In a commentary in Catholic Outlook, publication of the Diocese of Parramatta, Jesuit Rev. Frank Brennan, a lawyer and rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne, expressed some of the same concerns as Bolt: that police did not investigate the claims properly.

“Readers need to understand that all is not well with the system of criminal justice in Victoria,” said Father Brennan, who attended some of the court proceedings. “Cardinal Pell has been a major casualty in this clash and decline of institutions. The unsuspecting complainant who brought the case against him has had to suffer untold additional trauma because of the shortcomings of the Victoria Police and the office of Public Prosecutions.”

“Some Australians, including many victims of child sexual abuse, revile George Pell,” Father Brennan wrote. “Others hold him in high esteem. Last week’s High Court decision is unlikely to change personal views of the man, but this judgment concerns the administration of the criminal justice system in Victoria as it impacts on everyone, both accused and victims, who deserve justice according to law.”

He said the complainant in the case was “the hapless victim in this showdown between institutions” who had obviously “suffered serious trauma in his life.”

“I am sorry for the added trauma he has now suffered through the processes of the law. Much of it was avoidable. These processes have also retraumatized many other people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse and who have placed hope in our legal system. Their situation would have been assisted if the police in this case had undertaken competent, objective policing,” Father Brennan wrote.

In a statement after the High Court ruling, the complainant in the case issued a statement that said he respected the court’s decision.

“I understand that the High Court is saying that the prosecution did not make out the case to the required standards of proof,” he said. “There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice system and the appeal process is one of them.”

However, he said he hoped the decision would not discourage abuse victims from reporting the crimes to police.

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