By Jeff Grant, Catholic News Service
PHOENIX (CNS) — Australian Cardinal George Pell, jailed for more than a year for sex abuse crimes he ultimately was cleared of, said the experience enabled him to understand suffering as a redemptive process that allows one to identify closely with Christ.
“Suffering accepted in faith can be good and useful. Like gold, it can be used for good purposes,” Cardinal Pell told a gathering of Catholic medical professionals and their guests in Phoenix Nov. 20.
Reminding his audience Jesus told his followers, “whoever does not accept his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the cardinal said “that makes it difficult for Christians.”
But, he added, “It is through his suffering and death while a powerless victim that the Lord redeemed us.”
“All this only makes sense if we accept in faith that suffering can be redemptive — turned to a good purpose when united with Jesus’ suffering and death,” the cardinal continued. “It is through his suffering and death while a powerless victim that the Lord redeemed us; released the grace so that our sins and the worst crimes could be forgiven.”
The former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy, Cardinal Pell left the position in 2017 to defend himself. The office oversees Vatican finances, and the cardinal was eyeing several reforms at the time.
He was convicted by an Australian jury in late 2018 of molesting two choirboys in 1996 while archbishop of Melbourne. He served 405 days behind bars, including five months in solitary confinement to protect him from jailhouse attack.
Cardinal Pell had maintained his innocence, but after the verdict was made public in February 2019, he was sentenced to a maximum of six years in prison — with a possibility of parole after three years and eight months. It wasn’t until April 7, 2020, when Australia’s High Court, acting on the cardinal’s appeal, found the trial jury had failed to give proper weight to witness testimony.
The high court overturned the conviction. It cited a reasonable doubt in the testimony of Cardinal Pell’s lone accuser, stating there was “a significant possibility an innocent person (was) convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”
In a statement the day of his release, Cardinal Pell said that he holds “no ill will” toward his accuser.
During Cardinal Pell’s Phoenix visit, he was hailed by local church leaders and laity.
“For more than 13 months, he was a prisoner for a crime he did not commit. His witness to the religious freedom and rights of conscience — remaining steadfast to the truth — certainly is something we are all grateful for,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix told Catholic News Service.
“I was so impressed by his calm demeanor. He’s been through an experience none of us can comprehend,” added Dr. Thomas D. Shellenberger, president of the Catholic Physicians Guild of Phoenix. The guild is part of the national Catholic Medical Association, which fosters Catholic moral and ethical principles in medicine.
Cardinal Pell’s Nov. 20 address highlighted a dinner following the annual White Mass for health care professionals at the diocese’s Virginia G. Piper Chapel in downtown Phoenix.
The cardinal read excerpts from Volume 1 of his “Prison Journal,” published in December 2020. Volume 2 was released in May.
Sometimes interjecting thoughts on his case, the cardinal’s journal offered impressions of his daily readings from the Book of Job, the Old Testament account of a righteous, respected Jew’s struggle with God to understand an avalanche of personal suffering. In the end, God tells Job face-to-face that while He allowed the suffering, it was not the result of Job’s sins.
During one excerpt, Cardinal Pell read from Job, “If God weighs me on honest scales, being God, he cannot fail to see my innocence,” before adding his reflection: “Which (was) exactly my prayer in this bizarre cathedral case.”
“The Book of Job was written to contest the iron rule the Jewish people believed prevailed in history: Actions are rewarded and punished in this life,” said the cardinal. “Job’s friends believed it was his sins that explained his misfortunes. However, Job returned to prosperity, and God rebuked his friends.”
Cardinal Pell recalled a fellow priest who often brought up Job in conversation. “I always replied I hoped to be like Job, because his fortunes were restored in this life.'”
“Job’s message was, and is still, that we should still believe even when we cannot understand.”