For the first time since July 2017, Cardinal George Pell spoke at length. In a television interview taped on Holy Saturday at a seminary in Sydney, he answered questions for nearly an hour about his ordeal, which ended with a thumping acquittal by Australia’s High Court the previous Tuesday. In the course of his answers, Cardinal Pell made four important points and addressed the incendiary claim that his wrongful conviction in Melbourne might have been desired by corrupt officials in Rome.
Suffering of the Innocent
Asked about how he endured the charges, the public defamation, the trials and the incarceration, Cardinal Pell insisted that his inner peace was not disturbed because he knew that he was innocent. The only time during the interview that he appeared annoyed was when he was asked if he had considered suicide.
“I am a Christian!” he replied, incredulous that the possibility would be raised.
Cardinal Pell’s answer clarified what is true for Christians, above all during Holy Week. The suffering, even death, of the innocent is not a theological problem for Christians. If Jesus, innocent of all sin, could be falsely condemned to death, then the suffering of the innocent does not pose a challenge to the faith on a theological level.
However, suffering of any kind can be a spiritual or psychological challenge. On a spiritual level, Cardinal Pell has written that he was greatly comforted by the knowledge that he could unite his sufferings to those of Christ on the cross. That, and his daily spiritual routine, keep his spiritual equilibrium in balance. Psychologically, Cardinal Pell said he was buoyed up by the stalwart support of friends and strangers who wrote him thousands of letters and sent him articles and books to read.
The interview did not address the issue of why Cardinal Pell was not allowed to celebrate Mass privately for his 400 days in prison, most them spent in solitary confinement. Whether or not this restriction was ever challenged on either religious freedom or humanitarian grounds, either by Cardinal Pell himself or the local diocese, was not mentioned.
Vatican Financial Reform
The most news-making part of the interview was Cardinal Pell’s comments on Vatican financial reform, which he had been in charge of until his departure for Australia in July 2017.
In 2014, Cardinal Pell’s new department, the Secretariat for the Economy (SPE), was given sweeping new powers by Pope Francis to approve and audit all departments of the Holy See. A ferocious pushback came from key financial centers of authority, including the Secretariat of State. In July 2016, Pope Francis reversed himself, restricting the authority of the SPE. In June 2017, the Australian auditor general, a key figure in the financial reform, was pushed out by the Secretariat of State.
By the time Cardinal Pell left Rome for Australia, the Vatican financial reform had suffered serious setbacks. Had the cardinal overreached and needed to be restrained? Or had he discovered genuine corruption, hence the efforts to disable the reforms by those in danger of being exposed?
In the Holy Saturday interview, Cardinal Pell expressed his view that it was the latter and offered as evidence the numerous news stories late last year, many of them in the Financial Times of London, about suspect and secret investments. His team had “tenaciously” tried to oppose such initiatives, which has now come to light.
Cardinal Pell’s five-year term as prefect of the SPE expired in February 2019. Given that he was already 77 at the time and incarcerated, his term was not renewed. He is now a retired bishop. The new SPE prefect, Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, is relatively unknown. This is a major change from 2014, when Pope Francis entrusted the SPE to Cardinal Pell, one of the world’s most influential cardinals.
Collusion in Rome?
When the battle to beat back the SPE reforms was at its peak in 2016-2017, the Victoria police were ramping up their efforts to “get Pell,” as was subsequently revealed in his court proceedings. Was that a coincidence, literally two unrelated matters taking place at the same time? Or was there collusion?
Specifically, did the opponents of the SPE reforms in Rome, some of them criminal and corrupt figures exploiting the Vatican, see Cardinal Pell as an opponent who needed to be neutralized? Did they engage in skullduggery to advance false accusations against Cardinal Pell, accusations that the Victoria police were already soliciting?
The charge is massively incendiary, all the more so if senior Vatican officials were key actors or covered it up. Some of Cardinal Pell’s advocates have advanced that theory during the years of his court proceedings. George Weigel called for that possible link to be investigated nearly three years ago, when charges were first brought. Off-the-record sources in Rome frequently discuss it. Cardinal Pell was asked whether it was true.
“Have you ever considered that the troubles that you were causing to corrupt officials in the Vatican were related to the troubles that have since happened to you here?” Cardinal Pell was asked directly.
His answer was frank and deeply disturbing.
“Most of the senior people in Rome that are in any way sympathetic to financial reform believe that they are.” But he added, “I don’t have any evidence of that.”
“Senior figures sympathetic to financial reform” would include Cardinal Pell himself and presumably the Holy Father. Cardinal Pell’s answer suggests, though he does not assert, that he was taken down in part by corrupt Vatican officials. Does Pope Francis think the same?
In his initial statement upon release, Cardinal Pell said that he held “no ill will” toward his accuser. In the interview, he added that he harbored no “anger” either, but was mostly “sorry” for him. Cardinal Pell suggested that perhaps the accuser had been a victim of another person in another place and it was “transferred” in his memory to the cardinal and the Melbourne cathedral.
“I wonder if he was used,” Cardinal Pell said.
Used by whom? Cardinal Pell didn’t say. The obvious candidate would be the Victoria police, who were so desperate for accusations against Cardinal Pell that they took out newspaper advertisements soliciting them.
But could he have been used by agents in Rome attempting to frustrate the financial reform? Cardinal Pell’s answer does not exclude such a possibility.
The interview clarified much information that was for a long time under a “suppression order,” meaning that it could not be published. The Victoria police initially brought 26 charges against Cardinal Pell from nine accusers. Most of them were so bizarre — including accusations that he raped a screaming boy in a movie theater when other patrons were present or that he raped boys on the altar in a chapel of a convent — that they were thrown out in a preliminary hearing. The Melbourne allegations were the most credible of the entire lot, and they were impossible.
Will there now be a public inquiry into how the Victoria police got matters so wrong? That is a matter for the Victoria Parliament.
But there is a matter for the Vatican, too. Will those “senior officials sympathetic to financial reform” now attempt to find out whether there was a Roman connection or not?
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.