By NICOLE WINFIELD, ROME (AP) — Cardinal George Pell is enjoying his first Roman spring since being exonerated of sex abuse charges in his native Australia: He receives visitors to his Vatican flat, sips midday Aperol Spritz’s at the outdoor cafe downstairs and keeps up religiously with news of a Holy See financial scandal that he suspected years ago.
Pell, who turns 80 in June, is buoyed by the perks of being a retired Vatican cardinal even as he tries to put back together a life and career that were upended by his criminal trials and 404 days spent in solitary confinement in a Melbourne lockup.
“I’ve become very Italian,” Pell tells a visitor one morning, referring to his daily routine checking coronavirus cases in Italy. “I check the stats every day. But I’m regional: I go immediately to Lazio,” which surrounds Rome.
Pell left his job as prefect of the Vatican’s economy ministry in 2017 to return home to face charges that he sexually molested two 13-year-old choir boys in the sacristy of the Melbourne cathedral in 1996.
After a first jury deadlocked, a second convicted him and he was sentenced to six years in prison. The conviction was upheld on appeal only to be thrown out by Australia’s High Court, which in April 2020 found there was reasonable doubt in the testimony of his lone accuser.
Pell and his supporters strongly denied the charges and believe he was scapegoated for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse. Yet victims and critics say Pell epitomizes everything wrong with how the church has dealt with the sex abuse problem and have denounced his exoneration.
Pell spoke to The Associated Press ahead of the U.S. release of the second volume of his jailhouse memoir, “Prison Journal, Volume 2,” chronicling the middle four months of his term. The book charts his emotional low after the appeals court upheld his initial conviction, and ends with a sign of hope after Australia’s High Court agreed to hear his case.
“Looking back, I was probably excessively optimistic that I’d get bail,” Pell says now, crediting his “glass half-full” attitude to his Christian faith.
Pell still has many detractors — he freely uses the term “enemies” — who think him guilty. But in Rome, even many of his critics believed in his innocence, and since returning in September he has enjoyed a well-publicized papal audience and participates regularly in Vatican events.
Pell had returned to Rome to clean out his apartment, intending to make Sydney his permanent home.
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