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Cardinal Pell writes about the faith that sustained him through prison

Australian Cardinal George Pell: “So, I prayed for friends and foes, for my supporters and my family, for the victims of sexual abuse, and for my fellow prisoners and the warders.” Photo: CNS

CARDINAL George Pell has written of his 13 months in jail in Victoria, isolated from other prisoners for his own protection, bearing witness to the toughness of daily life behind bars, but sustained by his Catholic faith.

Writing on the American website First Things, a journal of religion and public life, Cardinal Pell, now 79, said he was despised by many of his fellow inmates for being a convicted child sex offender, but rather than feeling abandoned, he understood the reasons for it.

“All of us are tempted to despise those we define as worse than ourselves,” he said.

“Even murderers share in the disdain toward those who violate the young.

“However ironic, this disdain is not all bad, as it expresses a belief in the existence of right and wrong, good and evil.”

In May 2019, Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in prison, after being found guilty of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s.

He served 10 months in Melbourne Assessment Prison and three months in Barwon Prison, near Geelong.

His convictions were overturned on appeal in the High Court in April.

“There is a lot of goodness in prisons. At times, I am sure, prisons may be hell on earth. I was fortunate to be kept safe and treated well,” Cardinal Pell wrote for First Things.

“I was impressed by the professionalism of the warders, the faith of the prisoners, and the existence of a moral sense even in the darkest places.”

In Melbourne, Cardinal Pell was one of a dozen prisoners in Unit 8, each in an individual cell seven or eight metres long and about two meters wide – just enough for a bed with two blankets.

He had a kettle, a television and a space for eating.

Across the narrow aisle was a basin with hot and cold water and a shower recess with hot water.

Cardinal Pell said he never saw the eleven other prisoners in his unit, but he could hear them, especially the “bangers and shouters”, and “the anguished and angry, who were often destroyed by drugs, especially crystal meth”.

“I used to marvel at how long they could bang their fists, but a warder explained that they kicked with their feet like horses,” he said.

“Some flooded their cells or fouled them.

“Once in a while the dog squad was called, or someone had to be gassed.

“On my first night I thought I heard a woman crying; another prisoner was calling for his mother.”

Cardinal Pell said solitary confinement was for his own protection because prisoners convicted of the sexual abuse of children, especially clergy, were vulnerable to physical attacks and abuse.

He said he was only threatened once, while he was in his exercise area.

“As I walked around the perimeter, someone spat at me through the fly wire of the open aperture and began condemning me,” he said.

“A day or so later, the unit supervisor told me that the young offender had been shifted, because he had done ‘something worse’ to another prisoner.”

Cardinal Pell said he could hear other prisoners in Unit 8 denouncing and abusing him, and once he heard a fierce argument over whether he should be in jail.

“Opinion as to my innocence or guilt was divided among the prisoners, as in most sectors of Australian society, although the media with some splendid exceptions was bitterly hostile,” he said.

“… I received only kindness and friendship from my three fellow prisoners in Unit 3 at Barwon.”

Of the warders, Cardinal Pell wrote: “Some were friendly, one or two inclined to be hostile, but all were professional”, while the head of the prison in Melbourne urged him to persevere with his legal challenges.

“I was encouraged and remain grateful to him,” he wrote.

Cardinal Pell recognised that time in prison was an opportunity to ponder and confront basic truths, while it was his regular schedule of prayer that sustained him.

“From the first night, I always had a breviary (even if it was out of season), and I received Holy Communion each week,” he said.

“My Catholic faith sustained me, especially the understanding that my suffering need not be pointless but could be united with Christ Our Lord’s.

“I never felt abandoned, knowing that the Lord was with me – even as I didn’t understand what he was doing for most of the thirteen months.

“For many years, I had told the suffering and disturbed that the Son of God, too, had trials on this earth, and now I myself was consoled by this fact.

“So, I prayed for friends and foes, for my supporters and my family, for the victims of sexual abuse, and for my fellow prisoners and the warders.”

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