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Cardinal Pell’s Lessons From Prison

January 25, 2023 Frontpage No Comments


Prison Journal by George Cardinal Pell (Ignatius Press: three volumes, $53.88 on Amazon).

The untimely death of Cardinal George Pell has given rise both to sorrow and praise. In the midst of it all, there comes to mind one crowning achievement that can teach us all: the valiant and forgiving spirit that he nurtured during the thirteen months that he spent in prison, as reflected in the diary entries that he wrote every day.
Cardinal Pell went to prison not because he had committed a crime, but because he had been falsely accused. And a false accusation is foul indeed.
A false accusation violates the Eighth Commandment, but can also violate several more. If prompted by envy, it violates Commandments Nine and Ten. If prompted by a vicious desire to murder, it violates Commandment Five. In some cases it can even kill outright, as the distraught victim’s life is ruined, marriage broken, livelihood destroyed. If the lie is motivated by sexual lust, it violates Number Six; for material gain, Number Seven.
So false accusations can be a really big deal.
Consider now those who have been falsely accused. They have a mountain to climb. The personal wound is grave, all the more if the lie is public.
When the law enters, it gets even worse. The innocent target must endure an investigation that makes the Chinese Communist “Social Credit System” look positively libertarian.
Meanwhile, the target silently suffers.
“Who did this to me? Why?”
Raymond Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, spoke for many victims after his 1987 acquittal on spurious fraud charges in the State of New York. Even as members of the jury applauded as the trial adjourned quite rare, and clearly a sign of their contempt for the charges — Donovan asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
But there is no such office. Instead, in the familiar terms of the Reagan era, the victim is left to “twist slowly in the wind.” Meanwhile, the contempt of the generic lying accuser is helpfully demonstrated by The Washington Post as a public service.
Thirty-five years ago, when the paper’s weeks of accusations were proven false, the paper wouldn’t print a correction. The target asked why.
“When you were accused, it was news, but it wasn’t true,” the ombudsman replied. “Now that you’ve been cleared, it’s true, but it isn’t news.”
“Democracy Dies In Darkness,” boasts the Post’s banner.
Well, it looks like truth does, too.
In his younger days, Donovan studied in Louisiana’s Notre Dame Seminary before he realized that his true vocation lay in marriage and family. His experience there undoubtedly fortified the composure and character that he manifested during the ordeal dumped on him years later.

The Innocent And The Guilty

When an accusation deals with the issue of clerical sex abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, it just ups the ante. Whatever the investigation reveals, the accused is either sidelined or fired. Sometimes the facts might not be revealed until the Last Judgment. At which time, we hasten to add, it’s quite possible that our thoughts might be focused on another more abiding verdict.
Fr. David Link, an accomplished lawyer, had served for over ten years as dean of the Notre Dame Law School when his wife died. He studied for the priesthood, was ordained, and devoted his life to prison ministry, serving in Indiana’s maximum-security prison near Gary, Ind. He inspired many, including this writer, to volunteer for prison ministry.
Fr. Link once told a convention of federal judges and court lawyers (here I paraphrase), “Don’t worry, most of the guys you send to prison are guilty. But there a lot of folks out there walking the streets every day who are just as guilty, if not more.”
So Cardinal Pell was the exception. He was innocent, but he was charged in 2017 and convicted after two trials (the first resulted in a hung jury). On February 27, 2019, he was remanded in custody and taken to prison.
“Even the prosecutor — and we know of the judge’s views, too — believed me innocent,” he writes in his journal that day. “In fact, we all knew.”
As he passes through the humiliating intake procedures — strip search, handcuffs, give up belt and shoelaces — the cardinal observes that the various guards are respectful — an exception to the norm in prison life, and a welcome one in his case. He is placed alone in solitary confinement. There he will hear from up and down the hall the myriad of sounds that will abide, ebb and flow, until the day he is released.
“In every way, it is a relief the day is over. I am now at the quiet heart of the storm, while family, friends, and wider Church have to cope with the tornado,” he writes.

Prayerful Witness:
A Model For Us All

“From the first day I was allowed to keep my breviary and a pair of prison rosary beads was placed in my room, after my own beads were confiscated like most of my possessions,” he writes. Such flimsy rosaries are universal in prisons, since inmates will use anything with metal to make tattoos or even weapons. Like every prisoner, he is reduced to bare necessities, and subjected to the challenge of having no privacy at all every day for over a year.
A week later, he is “starting to develop a routine, beginning with the Prayer of the Church, followed by a meditation later in the morning. Moving through the Epistle to the Hebrews, a favorite of mine.”
And by divine coincidence, he writes, “The first reading in the breviary today has Job’s troubles just beginning.”
This duty of prayer, reflection, and writing continues throughout his confinement. Pell is a humble, faithful Catholic, unjustly imprisoned but more aware than ever of the need for prayer in good times as well as bad.
Cardinal Pell prays and lives the same life as the other prisoners.
At least the guilty know they belong there. He knows he doesn’t.
But prison life is cruel indeed. “This is the first Sunday for many decades, apart from illness, that I have not attended or celebrated Sunday Mass — probably for more than seventy years. I wasn’t even able to receive Communion,” he writes.
How hard is it for us, dear reader, to receive Communion? Maybe try a little harder now, Cardinal Pell asks?
Prison life is not easy. “God our Loving Father, help me to keep hatred out of my heart. Not only should I speak the truth in love, but I should think the truth in love.”
On one day Cardinal Pell notices the “shouters” on his cell block, but on another day, he writes, “jail life is very quiet.”
He reads every letter sent to him. Hint to the Faithful: If you want your bishop to read your letter, write him in prison.
“I believe in God’s providence; I never chose this situation and worked hard to avoid it; but here I am, and I must strive to do God’s will.”
Fifty years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen gave a retreat for the priests of the Diocese of Gary. “Never ask for suffering,” he told them. “I did. Once.”
The last lines of Cardinal Pell’s entry on April 7, 2019, cite lines from Shakespeare’s Othello that “provide a fitting conclusion for my day of liberation, in Holy Week, just before Easter.”
“Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing.
“ ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands,
“But he that filches from me my good name
“Robs me of that which not enriches him,
“And makes me poor indeed.”

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