There is a lot of goodness in prisons. At times, I am sure, prisons may be hell on earth. I was fortunate to be kept safe and treated well. I was impressed by the professionalism of the warders, the faith of the prisoners, and the existence of a moral sense even in the darkest places.
I was in solitary confinement for thirteen months, ten at the Melbourne Assessment Prison and three at Barwon Prison. In Melbourne the prison uniform was a green tracksuit, but in Barwon I was issued the bright red colors of a cardinal. I had been convicted in December 2018 of historical sexual offenses against children, despite my innocence, and despite the incoherence of the Crown Prosecutor’s case against me. Eventually (in April of this year) the High Court of Australia was to quash my convictions in a unanimous ruling. In the meantime, I began to serve my sentence of six years.
In Melbourne, I lived in Cell 11, Unit 8, on the fifth floor. My cell was seven or eight meters long and about two meters wide, just enough for my bed, which had a firm base, a not-too-thick mattress, and two blankets. On the left as you entered were low shelves with a kettle, television, and eating space. Across the narrow aisle was a basin with hot and cold water and a shower recess with good hot water. Unlike in many posh hotels, an efficient reading lamp was in the wall above the bed. Since both my knees had been replaced a couple of months before entering prison, I used a walking stick initially and was given a higher hospital chair, which was a blessing. Health regulations require each prisoner to have an hour outside each day, and so I was allowed to take two half-hours in Melbourne. Nowhere in Unit 8 was there clear glass, so I could recognize day from night, but not much more, from my cell. I never saw the eleven other prisoners.
I certainly heard them. Unit 8 had twelve small cells along one external wall, with the “noisy” prisoners at one end. I celled in the “Toorak” end, named for a rich Melbourne suburb, exactly the same as the noisy end but generally without bangers and shouters, without the anguished and angry, who were often destroyed by drugs, especially crystal meth. I used to marvel at how long they could bang their fists, but a warder explained that they kicked with their feet like horses. Some flooded their cells or fouled them. Once in a while the dog squad was called, or someone had to be gassed. On my first night I thought I heard a woman crying; another prisoner was calling for his mother.
I was in isolation for my own protection, as those convicted of the sexual abuse of children, especially clergy, are vulnerable to physical attacks and abuse in prison. I was threatened in this manner only once, when I was in one of two adjacent exercise areas separated by a high wall, with an opening at head height. As I walked around the perimeter, someone spat at me through the fly wire of the open aperture and began condemning me. It was a total surprise, so I returned furious to the window to confront my assailant and rebuke him. He bolted from the front line out of my sight but continued to condemn me, as a “black spider” and other less-than-complimentary terms. After my initial rebuke, I remained silent, though I complained afterward that I would not go out to exercise if this fellow was to be next door. A day or so later, the unit supervisor told me that the young offender had been shifted, because he had done “something worse” to another prisoner.
On a few other occasions during the long lockdown from 4:30 in the evening to 7:15 in the morning, I was denounced and abused by other prisoners in Unit 8. One evening, I overheard a fierce argument over my guilt. A defender announced he was prepared to back the man who had been publicly supported by two prime ministers. Opinion as to my innocence or guilt was divided among the prisoners, as in most sectors of Australian society, although the media with some splendid exceptions was bitterly hostile. One correspondent who had spent decades in prison wrote that I was the first convicted priest he had heard of who had any support among the prisoners. And I received only kindness and friendship from my three fellow prisoners in Unit 3 at Barwon. Most of the warders in both prisons recognized I was innocent.
The antipathy among prisoners toward the perpetrators of juvenile sexual abuse is universal in the English-speaking world—an interesting example of the natural law emerging through darkness. All of us are tempted to despise those we define as worse than ourselves. Even murderers share in the disdain toward those who violate the young. However ironic, this disdain is not all bad, as it expresses a belief in the existence of right and wrong, good and evil, which often surfaces in jails in surprising ways.
On many mornings in Unit 8, I could hear the Muslim prayer chants. On other mornings, the Muslims were a little slack and did not chant, though perhaps they prayed silently. Language in prison was coarse and repetitive, but I seldom heard cursing or blaspheming. The prisoner I consulted thought this fact was a sign of belief, rather than a token of God’s absence. I suspect the Muslim prisoners, for their part, do not tolerate blasphemy.
Prisoners from many jails wrote to me, some of them regularly. One was the man who had set up the altar when I celebrated the final Christmas Mass at Pentridge Prison in 1996, before it closed. Another announced simply that he was lost and in the dark. Could I suggest a book? I recommended that he read Luke’s Gospel and start with John’s First Epistle. Another was a man of deep faith and a devotee of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. He had a dream that I would be released. It proved to be premature. Another told me that it was the consensus among the career criminals that I was innocent and had been “stitched up”—adding that it was odd that criminals could recognize the truth, but not judges.
Like that of most priests, my work had brought me into contact with a wide variety of people, so I was not too surprised by the prisoners. The warders were a surprise and a pleasant one. Some were friendly, one or two inclined to be hostile, but all were professional. If they had been resolutely silent, as the guards were for months when Cardinal Thuận was in solitary confinement in Vietnam, life would have been much harder. Sister Mary O’Shannassy, the senior Catholic chaplain in Melbourne with twenty-five years of experience, who does a fine job—one man convicted of murder told me he was a bit scared of her!—acknowledged that Unit 8 is well-staffed and well-run. After I lost my appeal to the Victorian Supreme Court, I considered not appealing to the Australian High Court, reasoning that if the judges were simply going to close ranks, I need not cooperate in an expensive charade. The boss of the prison in Melbourne, a bigger man than I and a straight shooter, urged me to persevere. I was encouraged and remain grateful to him.
On the morning of April 7, national television relayed the announcement of my verdict from the High Court. I watched in my cell on Channel 7 as a surprised young reporter informed Australia of my acquittal and became still more perplexed by the unanimity of the seven justices. The three other prisoners in my unit congratulated me, and soon I was released into a world locked down for the coronavirus. My journey was bizarre. Two press helicopters followed me from Barwon to the Carmelite Convent in Melbourne, and the next day, two press cars accompanied me all 880 kilometers to Sydney.
For many, time in prison is an opportunity to ponder and confront basic truths. Prison life removed any excuse that I was too busy to pray, and my regular schedule of prayer sustained me. From the first night, I always had a breviary (even if it was out of season), and I received Holy Communion each week. On five occasions I attended Mass, though I was unable to celebrate it, a fact I particularly lamented at Christmas and Easter.
My Catholic faith sustained me, especially the understanding that my suffering need not be pointless but could be united with Christ Our Lord’s. I never felt abandoned, knowing that the Lord was with me—even as I didn’t understand what He was doing for most of the thirteen months. For many years, I had told the suffering and disturbed that the Son of God, too, had trials on this earth, and now I myself was consoled by this fact. So, I prayed for friends and foes, for my supporters and my family, for the victims of sexual abuse, and for my fellow prisoners and the warders.
George Cardinal Pell is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.
Photo: Catholic Herald