ROME – Cardinal George Pell takes advantage of his first Roman source since being exonerated of sexual abuse charges in his native Australia: he receives visitors in his Vatican apartment, sips midday Aperol spritzes at the open-air café air down and religiously keeps abreast of news of a Holy See financial scandal he suspected years ago.
Pell, who turns 80 in June, is supported by the perks of being a retired Vatican cardinal even as he tries to rebuild a life and career that has been turned upside down by his criminal trials and 404 days gone by. in solitary confinement in Melbourne.
“I have become very Italian,” Pell told a visitor one morning, referring to his daily routine of checking for coronavirus cases in Italy. “I check the statistics every day. But I am regional: I am going straight away to Lazio ”, which surrounds Rome.
Pell left his post as Prefect of the Vatican’s Economy Ministry in 2017 to return home to face charges of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old choristers in the vestry of Melbourne Cathedral in 1996.
After a deadlocked first jury, a second convicted him and he was sentenced to six years in prison. The conviction was upheld on appeal to be dismissed by the High Court of Australia, which in April 2020 found that there was reasonable doubt in the testimony of his only accuser.
Pell and his supporters have firmly denied the charges and believe he was the scapegoat for all crimes in the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse. Yet victims and critics alike say Pell epitomizes all that is wrong with the way the church has handled the issue of sexual abuse and denounced his exoneration.
Pell spoke to The Associated Press ahead of the release in the United States of the second volume of his prison memoir, “Prison Journal, Volume 2,” chronicling the middle four months of his sentence. The book traces his emotional state after the appeals court upheld his initial conviction and ends with a sign of hope after the High Court of Australia. agreed to hear her case.
“Looking back, I was probably overly optimistic about bail,” Pell says now, attributing his “half-full glass” attitude to his Christian faith.
Pell still has many detractors – he freely uses the term “enemies” – who believe him to be guilty. But in Rome, even many of his critics believed in his innocence, and since his return in September he enjoyed a well-publicized papal audience and regularly participates in Vatican events.
Pell had returned to Rome to clean his apartment, intending to make Sydney his permanent home.
But he never left. As the COVID-19 resurgence in Italy struck, Pell spent the winter watching the Vatican corruption and incompetence scandal he tried to uncover as Pope Francis’ finance czar publicly exploded from in a way he admits he never saw coming.
During the three years that Pell was in charge of Vatican finances, he tried to find out how much money the Secretariat of State had in its asset portfolio, what its investments were, and what it was doing with the dozens of millions of dollars. in donations to the Pope from the faithful.
He largely failed because his enemy in the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, blocked his efforts to impose international accounting and auditing standards. But now Becciu was sacked, Francis has stripped the secretariat of its capacity to handle the money and Vatican prosecutors are investigating the office’s 350 million euro investment in a real estate company in London.
No indictment has been issued after two years of investigation. But in court documents, prosecutors accused an Italian broker involved in the London deal of trying to extort € 15m in fees from the Holy See, and they accused a handful of Vatican officials of ‘involvement.
Those same court documents, however, made it clear that the entire venture had been approved by senior officials at the Secretariat of State, and witnesses say Francis himself approved “fair” compensation for the broker. Yet, it is known that only lower-ranking Vatican officials and outside businessmen are investigated.
Pell said he was comforted that Vatican prosecutors were on the case, given the tens of millions of euros that were lost in the deal. But he said he was concerned about possible problems in the investigation and wondered if the truth was going to be revealed.
He noted that a British judge recently issued a devastating decision against the Vatican in a related asset seizure case against the broker, Gianluigi Torzi. The judge said Vatican prosecutors made “appalling” omissions and misrepresentations in their legal aid request, and his ruling essentially dismantled much of their case against Torzi.
“He used the word ‘dreadful’ about skill level,” Pell said. The issues reported in the UK decision are “a matter of concern,” said Pell, for whom due process matters are particularly expensive.
“It’s a matter of basic jurisdiction and justice,” Pell said. “We must act according to the standards of justice.”