Project self-defense

Project self-defense

Cardinal George Pell © Paul Haring (KNA)

In these days the first of three volumes of George Pell's "prison diary" is published. In the total 1.000-page opus, Australian cardinal ruminates on God, Pope Francis and the world.

Cardinal George Pell spent exactly 404 days behind bars from his conviction as a sex offender to his acquittal for lack of evidence by Australia's highest court. For his many friends, Pell, once one of the most powerful men in the Vatican, is the victim of a judicial farce. For his equally numerous opponents, the 79-year-old remains the symbol of all that has gone wrong in the Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse cases in Australia. The first volume of his "prison diary" is out now.

Marketing machine is running

For weeks, the marketing machine of Ignatius Press, a Catholic publishing house headquartered in San Franciso, has been in full swing. In contrast, there has been virtually nothing about the book in Australia's daily newspapers so far. Only Andrew Bolt, one of Pell's most loyal supporters, published an article about the abuse as early as 23 March. The Herald Sun, a daily newspaper belonging to the Murdoch family's arch-conservative media empire, gave it a glowing review on Nov. 11: "His enemies should read it to learn how crazy it was to think Pell capable of such crimes. Everyone else should read it to find out why this wonderful book may be the higher purpose for which Pell suffered."

Ignatius Press, meanwhile, comes up with a series of testimonials, such as from New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan. He writes about "women and men with an unshakeable faith whose hope was tested in prison" and cites as examples "Jesus himself, Saints Peter and Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Ignatius Loyola, Edmund Campion, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Edith Stein, Walter Ciszek. And ends with, "Now we can add to the litany Cardinal George Pell."

Reproaches to the opponents

In the book, Pell portrays himself as a Christian persecuted for his faith and beliefs. In doing so, he leaves room for interpretation by dressing such statements in interrogative form or quoting friends who, he elaborates, would portray his critics as schemers and conspirators just to bring him down. He also accuses the judiciary and media in Australia of one-sidedness and partisanship – as well as those fellow cardinals whose feet he had stepped on during his time as Vatican finance chief through his fight against corruption.

Pell calls the abuse scandal "the most serious blow the Church of Australia has suffered". Once again he stresses not to have known about it for a long time. "If anyone in the mid-1990s knew of the extent of the problem, they did not tell me publicly or in confidence," writes Pell. The state abuse commission, on the other hand, concluded that Pell had already known about the problem in the 1980s and had been involved in covering it up.

On politics and the church

Pell also reflects on politics and the papacy. Here's how he praises the "(Christian) barbarian" Donald Trump in a peculiar choice of words. Outgoing U.S. president's Supreme Court appointments helped "slow the advance of secularism". Looking at church leadership, Pell suggests resigned popes should be able to rejoin college of cardinals in future as "Cardinal X, Pope Emeritus". This reads like a discreet show of sympathy to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. – and a jab at his incumbent successor Francis.

Along with power and church politics, however, there are emotional passages in the first volume of the prison diary. Pell, who was fond of rough-and-tumble rugby in his younger years, describes in detail everyday life behind bars, where little things can suddenly bring great joy: a tea kettle, the chirping of a bird or the victory of the Melbourne rugby team "Tigers".

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Christina Cherry
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