The Prison Journals – George Cardinal Pell

On March 13, 2019, George Cardinal Pell was sentenced to six years in jail for ‘historical sexual assault offences.’

More than thirteen months later the Australian High Court voted 7-0 to overturn his original convictions.

During his time in solitary confinement Cardinal Pell wrote a prison journal in which he recorded spiritual insights, prison experiences, and personal reflections on current events both inside and outside the Church.

Having read Volume 3 earlier this year, I am currently making my way through Volume 1. I came upon an entry that seemed incredulous, given that it relates to his first day in jail. It reads,

‘As I was judged to be at some risk of self-harm, I was under regular observation during the night.’

It does raise the following questions:

  • Who made the assessment?
  • What screening instruments were used to base their findings?
  • Why do people self-harm?
  • Why was Cardinal Pell considered at risk of self-harming?

Self-harm or self-inflicted injury is the act of intentionally harming one’s own body without meaning for the injury to be fatal. People who engage in self-inflicted injury typically do so to cope with fear, anger, sadness, and other painful emotions. People who self-harm desire temporary relief from emotional pain.

Cardinal Pell had no reason to harm himself. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, simplicity, and service were integral to his life.

Prayer allowed him to connect with God. His prayer life included formal as well as informal prayers. Formal prayers were for public worship. But during times of personal devotion, he used informal prayers as well as the prayers of Christian saints.

Cardinal Pell understood the power of interior prayer. His prayers expressed a longing to know God and to experience His love and grace. When overcome with fear, doubt, or despair he turned to God, seeking His understanding and encouragement. God was his strength in times of uncertainty or adversity.

Cardinal Pell did not indulge in self-pity. His prayers reflect his concern for his family and his beloved Church to which he had dedicated much of his life. He prayed for the other prisoners, particularly those experiencing mental anguish. He prayed for the prison staff that they might be granted wisdom and patience. He prayed for his accusers that they might respect truth and desire justice. He prayed for himself that he might be given the courage, hope, perseverance, love, and forgiveness to survive his ordeal.

Selfless prayer is an antidote to self-harm.

The Journals of Cardinal Pell provide an insight into prison life. You soon realise that prison protocols do not always make sense. Not everything that happens has a logic to it.

Having discounted the possibility that Cardinal Pell was at risk of self-harming, there is the S word. The prison authorities may have decided he was at risk of suicide and placed him on suicide watch.

Suicide is common in a prison environment. Studies have shown that the rate of self-inflicted deaths in the prison population exceeds that of self-inflicted deaths in the community. And the suicide risk is highest early in the detention period.

Prisoners represent a particularly vulnerable and high-risk group for suicide. This is due to the following factors.

  • People in prison usually come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with poorer physical and mental health than the general population.
  • People in prison are often repeat offenders.
  • Many people who enter the prison system have a history of prior suicide attempts.

In addition, suicide rates among older men are high.

There are many factors, both external and internal, that cause older men distress. These include physical and material circumstances like frailty, chronic pain, bereavement, and financial troubles.

However, the silent challenge among older men who take their lives is psychological distress.

If anything, it was the psychological pressure that had been building up over three years that could have undermined Cardinal Pell’s faith in the judicial system and his confidence in God. The attacks on his character were relentless, from disgruntled parishioners who had been hurt by the Church, to sections of the media, opportunistic politicians, and a discernible bias in some parts of the judiciary.

Cardinal Pell could have felt bitter about what he considered wrongful imprisonment. He could have felt shame about exposing the Church to further criticism. He could have felt depressed about the judicial processes that favoured the accuser over the accused. He could have felt weary that his life was unprofitable, and he was becoming a burden to those supporting him.

The Journals show why Cardinal Pell was not at risk of suicide. They reveal the character of the man – his strength, his determination, his goodness – and…

The protective factors that kept him safe and secure.

(1) A supportive family       

Having a sense of belonging helps to offset feelings of isolation. Cardinal Pell felt connected to his family and welcomed their support. He was grateful for any contact whether it be by phone, letter, or a planned visit. Despite being limited by his circumstances, he looked for ways to encourage and support his family. He expressed genuine concern when he heard that his nephew, Nick, was upset with the verdict and subsequent imprisonment and had taken time off work.

(2) A global network

Cardinal Pell’s high profile meant that he was known in many circles. He could count several previous Prime Ministers of Australia as his friend. The court case sparked global interest and ignited a flood of support from people near and far. The volume of correspondence he received overwhelmed the prison censor. It was common for him to receive up to a hundred letters a day, the vast majority supportive of his cause. The senders were often known to him, but some letters came from complete strangers including prisoners currently serving time. Cardinal Pell made a point of reading all his correspondence, taking note of words of encouragement or insights into the mysterious ways of God which often required further thought. Where appropriate, Cardinal Pell would write a sympathetic reply offering words of appreciation and support.

 (3) A genuine faith

Cardinal Pell never doubted that God was in control of his life and that everything happens for a reason. As he reflected on the history of the Christian Church, he knew that he was just one of many who had been wrongfully imprisoned, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

Cardinal Pell understood that the quality of a person’s faith is not known until it is tested and that for faith to grow strong, we must stand firm.

It was his unwavering faith that prompted him to voluntarily return to Australia to face his accusers. Not only did he want to exonerate his name, but he also wanted to protect the Church from any unwarranted criticism. It was also his unwavering faith that sparked a renewal in the Catholic Church causing lapsed members to reaffirm their commitment and attendances to grow.

(4) A disciplined life

One of the core values in life is order, bringing order to our existence, ordering our priorities. Although the world may look chaotic, there is order – night and day. Creating order in our life allows us to live freely, purposefully, and productively.

Despite the vagaries of prison life and the unexpected interruptions Cardinal Pell attempted to establish a daily routine which included administering medication, personal hygiene, devotions (bible reading, meditation, and prayer), meals (the evening meal was served at 3.30pm and was often cold), exercise (30 minutes twice daily in a small exercise yard – Cardinal Pell often set himself personal challenges), cleaning (his cell and the exercise yard which he described as ‘grotty’), reading (Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’), legal matters (regular contact/correspondence with legal team), rest, relaxation (watching TV – sport, religious programs; Sudoku), correspondence (letters – to be read and in some instances responded to), journal entries, sleep.

(5) An everyday spirituality

Some people think that to be spiritual you must be meek and submissive. Cardinal Pell was respectful, but he was also assertive. If he made a request and nothing was done about it, he would follow it up. If a visitor were turned away, he would seek clarification as to the procedures that need to be followed. If he were denied access to the exercise yard, he would lodge a protest and emphasise his need to maintain his fitness.

Cardinal Pell also tried to preserve an attitude of thankfulness. He was grateful for the ‘little blessings.’ He describes one afternoon he was allowed access to ‘the pen.’

“It was about 4.00pm. The sun was thinking of setting. It was a beautiful afternoon with the sun reflected on the neighbouring skyscraper – and I could hear some birds singing and chirping.”

 (6) A robust theology

We live in a world where suffering is the norm. Suffering takes on many guises – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Sometimes we embrace suffering to achieve an outcome. Sometimes suffering seeks us out, demanding our attention.

Cardinal Pell serves a God who is not embarrassed by suffering. The Bible tells us that God sent His son Jesus to suffer for mankind. Cardinal Pell believes in ‘redemptive suffering,’ suffering that achieves a greater good. Cardinal Pell hoped that his time in jail might achieve just that.


Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.