The incarcerated Cardinal George Pell is facing an investigation by Australian prison authorities, after images of a letter he sent to supporters were posted on social media.
Pictures of the two-page letter were posted on Twitter Friday by the “Cardinal Pell Supporters” account. According to Australian prison regulations, inmates are not permitted to access social media, or to enjoin others to make social media posts on their behalf.
On Saturday, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Community Safety in the state of Victoria said the “activity” on the Cardinal Pell Supporters Twitter account would be “thoroughly investigated.”
Sources close to the supporters group told CNA that Pell had given no instructions for the letter to be posted on social media, and that the account had recently been deactivated.
“The cardinal wrote a pastoral letter to his supporters, he certainly didn’t instruct anyone to post it on Twitter,” one person close to the group told CNA.
“That decision was taken by others, and I’d hope they wouldn’t do it again.”
Another person familiar with the letter’s distribution told CNA that the cardinal was intent on abiding by the terms of his imprisonment and, despite his incarceration, is still engaged with wider events in the Church.
“I think the cardinal was very clear in his letter that he has immense concern for those who are praying for him, but also for the whole Church; he always has. He’s still a bishop and a cardinal after all.”
The text of the letter and images of the original were separately shared with CNA and reported Aug. 9. The prison rule specifically relates to social media use by or on the cardinal’s behalf, and does not include reporting on the contents of the letter by media outlets.
Sky News Australia said the letter "compares the cardinal's suffering to that of Jesus Christ."
In fact, Pell wrote that "The knowledge that my small suffering can be used for good purposes through being joined to Jesus’ suffering gives me purpose and direction."
The incident comes as Pell’s legal team prepare to receive a decision from a Court of Appeal on Pell’s appeal of his conviction on five counts of child sexual abuse in December last year.
Sources close to Pell told CNA that his legal team is preparing for a decision as early as this week and that, while they are hopeful of a favorable outcome, “every possibility is being considered, nothing is being taken as read.”
Following his conviction in the County Court of Victoria, Pell was sentenced in March to six years in prison, of which he must serve at least three years and eight months. Pell has remained in prison since that time.
Across two days of hearings on June 5-6, judges from the Supreme Court of Victoria heard Pell’s appeal against the jury’s decision on three separate grounds. Local media coverage broadly reported that the argumentation presented in court appeared to favor Pell.
On day two of the hearings, court president Justice Chris Maxwell called the circumstances of Pell’s alleged crimes “wildly improbable.”
This first ground of appeal is that the unanimous decision of the jury could not have risen to the level of “beyond reasonable doubt” because of the unchallenged exculpatory evidence of 20 witnesses during the trial.
The second ground concerns the decision of the trial judge, Peter Kidd, to exclude a video presentation by defense lawyers which would, they maintain, have illustrated to the jury the implausibility of the victim’s narrative.
The third ground is a procedural appeal concerning Pell’s arraignment, which was not carried out in front of any jury members, a fact the defense argues was a “fundamental irregularity.”
On Aug. 9, The Australian reported that appellate judges had been considering last minute questions on that issue, focused on whether the use of a video link was sufficient to substitute for members of the jury being present at the time when Pell would have been expected to enter a plea.
If the court were to accept the appeal on procedural grounds, a retrial would likely be ordered and the prosecution of Pell would have to start from the beginning.
Many of Pell’s supporters say they hope the judges will overturn the jury’s verdict entirely, ruling that no decision of guilt beyond reasonable doubt was possible in the light of the evidence, and setting the cardinal free.
Should the court reject all three grounds and allow the conviction to stand, Pell’s legal team has confirmed that he will not seek to appeal the length of his prison sentence.
In the meantime, Pell remains in prison where, according to the text of the letter sent to CNA last week, he has received more than a thousand messages of support from members of the faithful.
Pell wrote to supporters that he has been sustained in his incarceration by his faith and by the prayers of the faithful, and that he is offering his suffering in prison for the good of the Church.
The full text of the letter is reproduced below.
Melbourne Assessment Prison
Dear Kathy and brothers and sisters in Christ of the Support Cardinal Pell group,
First of all, let me thank you for your prayers and messages of support. These bring immense consolation, humanly and spiritually.
A word of explanation. I have received between 1500-2000 letters and all will be answered. So far, I have only responded to letters from my fellow prisoners (to nearly all of those who wrote) and a few other special cases. Your kindness is not forgotten and will always be fondly remembered.
My faith in Our Lord, like yours, is a source of strength. The knowledge that my small suffering can be used for good purposes through being joined to Jesus’ suffering gives me purpose and direction. Challenges and problems in Church life should be confronted in a similar spirit of faith.
We must always remember that the Church is one, not just in the sense that good families stick together whatever their differences, but because the Church of Christ is based in the Catholic Church, which constitutes the Body of Christ. One ancient saying teaches that there must be unity in essentials (Jesus’ essentials), while there can be diversity in non-essentials. But everywhere and in everything we must have charity.
I agree that we have reason to be disturbed by the Instrumentum Laboris of the Amazonian Synod. This is not the first low-quality document the Synod secretariat has produced. Cardinal G. Muller, formerly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has written an excellent critique. I am no expert on the region, but I have been to Iquitos in Amazonian Peru, where a Sydney priest, Fr John Anderson runs a parish of exemplary piety, pastoral activity and orthodoxy. As in the Amazon, a lot of water has yet to run before the Synod.
One point is fundamental. The Apostolic Tradition, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, taken from the New Testament and taught by Popes and Councils by the Magisterium, is the only criterion doctrinally for all teaching on doctrine and practice. Amazon or no Amazon, in every land, the Church cannot allow any confusion, much less any contrary teaching, to damage the Apostolic Tradition.
The Spirit continues to be with the Church. You have every right to make your voices heard, reasonably and in charity. We need not expect the worst.
Yours in the Lord,
Your grateful brother,
+ George Card. Pell