‘It was undignified’: Cardinal George Pell opens up about his toughest experience in jail before he was acquitted of child sex offences

Daily Mail [London, United Kingdom]

May 19, 2021

By Charlie Coë

[Includes timeline]

  • Exonerated cardinal spoke of the ‘humiliating’ prison strip searches he endured 
  • Convicted in 2018 of five counts of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys 
  • He spent 405 days behind bars before his six-year jail sentence was overturned
  • Pell said at times he thought he would have to wait until afterlife for vindication

Cardinal George Pell has revealed ‘humiliating’ prison strip searches were the worst part about being in jail before his child sex abuse convictions were quashed.

Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic official was wrongly convicted in December 2018 of five counts of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys at Melbourne‘s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.

He spent 405 days behind bars before his six-year jail sentence was overturned in a final appeal to the High Court in April 2020.

Pell, 79, said there were times during his ‘undignified’ stint behind bars when he thought he would have to wait until the Christian afterlife to be vindicated.

‘Jail is undignified, you’re at the bottom of the pit, you’re humiliated, but by and large I was treated decently,’ he said during a radio interview with Irish reporter Colm Flynn on the BBC World Service.

‘The worst single thing I suppose were the strip searches, the brief humiliating… the ignominy of it is probably the worst of it.

‘I wasn’t too uncomfortable. [I had] a firm base for a bed, a hot shower and that’s very important to Australians. The food, there was too much of it. 

Pell’s 13-month spell in jail was spent in Barwon Prison, near Geelong, and the Melbourne Assessment Prison.  

‘One of the lessons from my time in jail is that the Christian package works,’ he said.

‘If you believe there is a God, if you believe that ultimately all things will be well, that ultimately in the afterlife there will be peace and harmony and justice, if you really believe that, (it doesn’t) matter what terrible thing might happen to you here. 

‘It’s not like a Greek tragedy where for the Greeks there was no afterlife, there’s no possibility of fixing it up, that’s not a Christian perspective.’ 

The exonerated cardinal has previously said he was the target of fellow prisoners in jail.

‘All of us are tempted to despise those we define as worse than ourselves,’ he told The Australian.

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

Pell said the abuse, while unpleasant, reassured his belief in man and right and wrong.

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

When asked if his faith was tested in prison, Pell said he never despaired or fell into a ‘abyss’ – noting ‘Jesus never had a good run of it either’.

From allegations to sentence to freedom: A timeline of the George Pell case


* Pell appointed Archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II

* Pell sexually abuses two 13-year-old choirboys after a Sunday solemn mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, according to a later jury finding.

* A second indecent act is committed by Pell against one of the choirboys in a corridor at the Cathedral, the same jury found.


* Pell served as Archbishop of Sydney, 2001-2014.

* He has created a cardinal in 2003.


* The Herald-Sun reports Pell is being investigated by Victoria Police’s Sano taskforce for ‘multiple offences’ committed while he was a priest in Ballarat and Archbishop of Melbourne.

* Pell says the allegations are ‘without foundation and utterly false’ and calls for an inquiry into how the police investigation became public.

* Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton asks the anti-corruption watchdog to investigate the leak, but denies it came from police.

* Pell gives evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Ballarat.

* Under Vatican rules, Pell gives Pope Francis his resignation on his 75th birthday, as is customary. It is not accepted.

* Victoria Police investigators hand over to the state’s Office of Public Prosecutions a brief of evidence on allegations of sexual abuse by Pell.

* Officers travel to Rome to interview Pell over the abuse claims. He voluntarily participates in the interview.


* Police present their final brief of evidence to the Office of Public Prosecutions to consider charges.

* Prosecutors give police the green light to charge Pell.

JUNE 2017

* Pell is charged with multiple counts of historical child sex offences.

* He denies the charges and vows to clear his name.

* Lawyers for Pell appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court.

* Pell takes leave from his Vatican finance chief role to fight the charges.

JULY 2017

* Pell returns to Australia.

* He hires top barrister Robert Richter QC.

* Supporters set up a fund to help Pell fight the charges. 


MARCH 2018

* Prosecutors drop one of the charges against Pell.

* A month-long committal hearing begins to determine if Pell will face trial. 

* Prosecutors withdraw more charges. 

* Mr Richter claims police conducted a ‘get Pell operation’ and accuses magistrate Belinda Wallington of bias. 

She refuses to disqualify herself from the case. 

MAY 2018

* Ms Wallington orders Pell stand trial on some charges but throws out others.

* Pell formally pleads ‘not guilty’.

* Two trials are ordered, separating the 1970s and 1990s allegations.

* A Victorian County Court employee is sacked for looking up information on the Pell case.


* The 1990s ‘cathedral trial’ begins in the Victorian County Court in Melbourne.

* Pell pleads not guilty again to one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four of indecent acts with a child, over incidents involving two 13-year-old choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.


* The jury is discharged, unable to reach a verdict following a week of deliberation. Some jurors weep.


* A retrial begins. The jury aren’t told of the previous hung jury.


* Pell is found guilty on all charges by an unanimous jury.

* Mr Richter says Pell will appeal.

* Suppression orders prevent Australian media reporting the verdict but it spreads through international media within hours.



* Hearings begin ahead of the second trial. Prosecutors drop another charge

* An appeal is filed against the cathedral trial conviction.

* A County Court judge deems vital evidence inadmissible.

* Prosecutors withdraw all remaining charges against Pell and drop a second trial over allegations Pell indecently assaulted boys in Ballarat in the 1970s when he was a parish priest.

* Pell is taken into custody on February 27 as the plea hearing begins.

MARCH 2019

* Pell is sentenced by County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd to a maximum of six years in prison. He must serve at least three years and eight months in jail before being eligible for parole. He will be a registered sex offender for life.

JUNE 2019

* Court of Appeal considers Pell’s application to challenge his conviction on June 5 and 6.

AUGUST 21, 2019

* Court of Appeal upholds Pell’s conviction. 

SEPTEMBER 17, 2019

* Pell files for special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia. 

MARCH 11-12, 2020:

 * The High Court convenes to hear the appeal.

APRIL 7, 2020:

* The High Court’s seven judges unanimously agree to dismiss all convictions and Pell is released from prison.