VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
National Catholic Register - EWTN [Irondale AL]
December 16, 2021
By Joan Frawley Desmond
The former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy sat down for an interview on his three-volume ‘Prison Journal’ touching on his incarceration, Cardinal Becciu and Vatican finances.
When Cardinal George Pell took a leave of absence in 2018 from his post as the inaugural prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and returned to Australia to stand trial for his “historic sexual abuse” case, he was the highest ranking Church official to be swept up in a decades-long global scandal that has shattered victims and wreaked havoc on the Church’s moral credibility.
Convicted in 2018, he would spend 402 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, before his guilty verdict was overturned by Australia’s highest court in 2020.
During his incarceration, the former archbishop of Melbourne from 1996-2001 and of Sydney from 2001–2014 was barred from celebrating the Mass, forcing him to dig deep into his faith and prayer life. He was heartened, however, by the steady flow of letters from friends and well-wishers who offered prayers, spiritual counsel and reading materials.
While working with his lawyers to appeal his conviction, the cardinal began a journal, chronicling the sudden constraints placed on his daily routine, reflections on Holy Scripture, and reactions to unfolding events in Rome, including evidence of the Holy See’s problematic real estate investments in London.
The subsequent revelations of high-level financial corruption, leading to an ongoing Vatican trial, also raised questions about whether curial officials who had opposed the cardinal’s insistence on an external audit of all Vatican finances, helped to bring his case to trial in the first place. At issue: 2.3 million in Australian dollars ($1.65 million) worth of Vatican funds sent to Australia that have yet to be accounted for.
Since his acquittal and release from prison, the now retired cardinal divides his time before Rome and Sydney. In December, he visited San Francisco, the home town of his U.S. publisher, Ignatius Press, which has released three installments of his Prison Journal.
During a visit this month to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, Cardinal Pell spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the spiritual impact of incarceration, his decision to forgive his accuser and the Vatican financial corruption trial that may be linked to his own case.
“I have one question for Cardinal Becciu,” Cardinal Pell told the Register, referring to the former chief of staff in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State now facing charges of embezzlement and abuse of office. “Will he just tell us what the money was sent for?”
At the beginning of your prison diary, you wryly observe that you were “overdue for a retreat.” It is said that prison can be a monastery. Why is that the case?
If you’re in solitary confinement, you’ve got a lot of quiet time. I had my breviary, I had rosary beads, I had some spiritual books. And I had a daily program of prayers, which I just followed.
Your diary gave the impression that your formation kicked in, and you adapted quickly.
Yes, it did. And, as I said, my pre-Vatican II seminary was a good preparation for solitary confinement.
In the third installment of your diary, you talk about being denied the privilege of celebrating the Mass, and the spiritual wounds that inflicts. And yet, God is still present.
God is with you, whether you feel it or whether you don’t, so I was aware of that. And, you know, for most of my life, I have not been a religious enthusiast or swamped with religious consolations.
But oddly enough, I was probably as peaceful as I’ve ever been religiously, during my time in jail. And one reason for that, of course, is that you’re not nearly as busy and distracted as you are when you’re leading a busy life as a bishop or as a priest.
You received many letters in prison, and some of them supported your prayer life and your spirits. Can you describe the impact of those letters early on, and how that correspondence developed?
They were a big psychological boost. The number of letters was enormous: In over 400 days, I received around 4,000 letters, averaging about 10 a day.
It waxed and waned, not least because I think I ruined the censorship system in jail. One of the wardens said to me a little ruefully, as he brought me mail for a couple of days, “You’ve got more mail this weekend than I’ve received in my life.”
There were many beautiful writings. Very early on, somebody sent me a text from St. Anthony of Egypt, the hermit who founded monastic life, and which I struggled through. He was a pretty hardline sort of fellow. But that was just one example. People would send me religious books or articles, and then increasingly I got all sorts of very interesting intellectual material that was a diversion and a real stimulus.
Was there a sense of the tables being turned: You were being ministered to by the faithful, as opposed to pastoring them?
Oh, very much — when you’re in jail, at the bottom of the pit, you’re being held up by a lot of people. I’m more appreciative now than I ever was of basic courtesies, like a kind word.
You have said that you forgave the man who accused you. is there something you can share about that process of forgiveness, and the feelings that involved?
I didn’t particularly feel it at all. You decide to forgive and then generally your feelings follow.
Also, I realized that whatever else was true about him, he’d suffered in his lifetime. When he gave evidence, I had thought he wasn’t particularly together. I mean, he changed the story 24 times.
A Christian has to decide to forgive or not forgive a number of times when going through life. So it’s not as though I was never faced with such a choice like this until I was 76 or 77 and in jail. And if you’ve tried to forgive little things, you’re probably in a better place to just forgive when the big challenge comes.
You write that we Christians believe suffering in faith can be redemptive. And you also say that during your time in prison you realized that you had led a “relatively sheltered life and may have been inclined to underestimate the evil in society and the damage done to many people, victims.” What helped to bring this to light?
As a bishop, I had to deal with a lot of these cases [alleging the sexual abuse of minors] — there was an immense amount of suffering and sadness. I handed the cases over to a process [of investigation] and I would have to implement the decisions. All this took me very much more into the world of suffering. My convictions were deepened by me experience in the prison isolation wing, where I experienced the damage done to my fellow prisoners. Many of them are ruined by drugs. I heard their anger and their anguish and their banging on the doors [of their cells]. I was powerless to help.
After you were unjustly convicted of sexually abusing two minors, did you ever see yourself as a substitute and your suffering as kind of an offering for the sins of Church leaders who had not or would not pay any penalty in this life for their crimes?
I never saw it explicitly in those terms. But I was very aware of the failures of Church leaders. I probably was more aware of trying to offer up my small difficulties as an offering to help the victims, and I certainly pray for some of the bishops I knew who seemed to have mucked things up spectacularly in terms of their approach.
You mean, they thought they were protecting the Church, but ended up facilitating abuse and cover-ups?
Telling lies sometimes, yes. But it’s very difficult to know what motivated a specific individual.
The initial point was that right across the board, people kept that area of life under wraps, and not just in the Church. So that was the initial starting point. And you might say, in their defense, they didn’t realize the terrible damage that was not always but regularly done [to victims]. And they didn’t realize the persistence of this perverse compulsion, this habit.
You left your position as the inaugural prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy to stand trial in Australia, suspending your campaign to reform the Vatican’s financial system. Later, you learned that significant sums of money were transferred to Australia around the time of your arraignment in 2017. Are you confident that these allegations will come up in the Vatican trial?
I’m not confident of anything with the Vatican trial. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not even entirely sure that it will go ahead. It might fail for legal reasons.
There’s no doubt that 2,300,000 [Australian dollars] was sent from the Vatican to Australia. Cardinal Becciu acknowledged that.
We just received the available recordings of the [Vatican] trial, and it looks as though Msgr. [Alberto] Perlasca, [the longtime investment manager for the Vatican], said under interrogation that the money was sent to the bishops’ conference in Australia for my legal defense. That’s certainly not true. We’ve asked the bishops’ conference, they received nothing. We certainly received nothing.
So I have one question for Cardinal Becciu: “Will he just tell us what the money was sent for?” And if it’s nothing to do with me or for entirely innocent purposes, good, I would be quite pleased, and we can get on with our lives.
What did you know about the London property scandal when you served as prefect?
I didn’t know a great deal when I went home. We did know the Secretary of State would not give us access to their records, and would not let the auditors in. We also knew they made an accounting error on the London property, which had the effect of masking it. We picked that up.
But we were entirely ignorant of the debacle that was developing.
You were so close when you had to go back and stand trial.
If the auditors had been allowed in, if we’d been allowed in, this would have been one of the first things [they would have flagged]. The [Vatican] would not have lost so much money.
We would never have agreed to the deal, explicitly written up in the contract, whereby they paid millions to get hold of the 30,000 shares for what they thought would give them ownership of the [London] building. In fact, there were 1,000 shares remaining that had all the voting rights, and I understand they had to pay [an additional] 15 million euros to get hold of those shares.
During your tenure as prefect, you tried to professionalize the oversight of Vatican finances.
Not just that, we changed the methodology [to align with] Western business practices. That means informed people with access to the information can judge where the Vatican is financially. Before we came along, you couldn’t do that. Only one or two people might have [had a complete grasp of Vatican finances].
For example, 1.3 billion euros that was not on the books. It was just sitting in separate accounts for a rainy day. It may have been for an innocent purpose, but it wasn’t declared.
Some argue that the outcome of the trial doesn’t matter very much because the Holy Father has made significant structural reforms to Vatican finances that will prevent this from happening again. Can it be prevented from happening again?
You can have the best structures in the world, but [their effectiveness] depends on the integrity and competence of the people [leading them]. So I just don’t know whether we are going to a better place than we were.
There’s also an annual structural deficit of 20 or 25 million Euros; and with COVID that went up to 50 or 70 million Euros a year at least.
We also know there’s significant pressure building in the pension fund, hundreds of millions, with a deficit looming. These are very real financial constraints.
The corruption has certainly been diminished, in some cases eliminated, and might be substantially eliminated everywhere. But the challenge now, is the financial pressures on the Vatican. They’ve got to either reduce their costs or make more money.
Do you see Pope Emeritus Benedict when you’re in Rome?
I do see him. He is failing. He is very, very weak. I will phone him before Christmas to see if he is strong enough for a visit.
This pontificate began with Pope Francis calling on bishops to get out of their chanceries to have the smell of their sheep. In an unexpected way, you have done just that. You may be retired, but what might be your contribution to the renewal of the Church at this point?
I am retired and divide my time between Sydney and Rome. I need to stay out of the way of my successors in Australia and let them do their work.
I try to say my prayers and do my reading. I am also doing a bit of public speaking and writing, touching on public life and the Church in the Western world, where the number of Christian believers has eroded and there has been a decline in practice for those who continue to believe.
[Sociological research confirms that] the more radically liberal the beliefs and practices of the Christian community, the more quickly they lapse into non-belief.
Religiously conservative movements are more durable. Our fundamental teachings are clear and are non-negotiable.
We would be obliged to maintain them even if they damaged numbers and practice. But contrary to expectations, it is the liberal Catholic communities e.g. in Belgium, Quebec, as well as Protestant groups who accommodate to the world who are losing more people.
The Church seems to be split on whether to maintain or relax Church discipline, specifically on reception of the Eucharist.
We’re not just offering hospitality at Mass, with Holy Communion. If you come to my place, I’ll offer you a biscuit and tea or coffee, it wouldn’t matter who you were. But that’s not what we believe about the Eucharist. We believe it really is the body and blood of Christ, the son of God.
You have to be a monotheist. You have to believe in Jesus Christ, and in the Real Presence. St. Paul wrote about the dispositions necessary to make a good and fruitful reception of Communion.
I have a wonderful story about a career criminal who was in jail. The chaplain was asked whether the prisoner came regularly to the prison Mass. He said yes. And then the chaplain was asked if the man went to Communion, and he replied, “No, he is a man of faith. He understands that he can’t go to Communion.”
Joan Frawley Desmond Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California.