'Strength and sincerity': John Howard's glowing character reference for George Pell

Former Australian PM Tony Abbott says he spoke to the cardinal on Tuesday but would not say what they discussed

The former prime minister John Howard has described Cardinal George Pell as “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character” and says that his conviction on child sexual abuse charges doesn’t “alter my opinion of the Cardinal” in a character reference.

Howard’s reference was published in full in the Herald Sun shortly after another former prime minister, Tony Abbott, described the George Pell verdict as “devastating … for the friends of Cardinal Pell”.

Howard was one of 10 people to submit a character reference to Melbourne’s county court on Wednesday during a sentencing hearing after Pell was found guilty of five counts of child sexual abuse in December last year.

In the reference, Howard said he was aware that Pell had been convicted and that he maintained his innocence. “None of these matters alter my opinion of the Cardinal,” he wrote.

He said he had known Pell for 30 years and that he is a “person of both high intelligence and exemplary character.

“Strength and sincerity have always been features of his personality. I have always found him to be lacking hypocrisy and cant. In his chosen vocation he has frequently displayed much courage and held to his values and beliefs, irrespective of the prevailing wisdom of the time.”

Howard said Pell was a “lively conversationalist who maintains a deep and objective interest in contemporary social and political issues.”

In a radio interview on Wednesday afternoon, Abbott revealed he spoke to Pell on Tuesday but refused to say what he had said to the now convicted child molester.

“Yes, Ben, I spoke to him yesterday,” Abbott told 2GB’s Ben Fordham during an at-times combative interview. “It was a call that I put into him. Yes I called him.”

It was the first time Abbott has spoken about the guilty verdict handed to his long-standing friend. Abbott has previously described Pell as a “fine man” and a “fine human being and a great churchman” who may not be “perfect”.

Abbott began Wednesday’s interview by describing the verdict as “devastating”. Fordham asked Abbott for whom it was devastating, prompting the reply: “Certainly, for the friends of Cardinal Pell, and as you say, I am one.

“Devastating for all who believe in the Catholic church, and I’m also one of those.

“This is a grim time, no doubt about that. But, as I said, I also have faith in our system of justice and let’s see what the system of justice ultimately produces.”

He repeatedly refused to say whether he would continue to count Pell as a friend and supporter should the cardinal lose the appeal against his conviction.

“Well, that’s a hypothetical question, Ben. Let’s see where we go,” he said.

Abbott said he accepted the court’s decision and described the crimes as “horrific”, but repeatedly pointed to the need to wait for the appeal process to be settled.


Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp

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