Former Prime Minister John Howard described convicted child sex offender George Pell as a person of “strength and sincerity” in a glowing character reference for the disgraced cardinal following his guilty verdict.
It was revealed on Tuesday that the senior Catholic cardinal had been convicted last December of five counts of child sex abuse against two 13-year-old choirboys during his time as Archbishop of Melbourne.
Howard’s letter, along with nine others from high-profile Australians and close friends of Pell’s, were handed to the Victorian judge Peter Kidd on Wednesday, in an effort to show Pell is still a highly regarded member of society among his supporters, despite his crimes.
The Herald Sun published Howard’s letter in full shortly after Tony Abbott described Pell’s conviction as “devastating” on 2GB radio.
In his letter to the court, Howard made clear he was writing after learning Pell had been found guilty, but said it made no difference in his eyes.
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,” he wrote.
He described Pell as a “lively conversationalist” who had “dedicated his life to his nation” and reiterated that the cardinal maintains his innocence.
Just hours later, prominent Pell supporter Abbott told 2GB’s Ben Fordham that he had spoken to Pell on Tuesday, but refused to go into what they discussed.
Abbott said Pell’s conviction was both “shocking” and “devastating”. When asked who the verdict was most devastating for, Abbott replied: “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.”
Revelations of Pell’s crimes rocked the nation this week when the Victorian Supreme Court lifted a gag order on the case, allowing Australian media to report on the case for the first time.
Pell was found guilty of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 16, which his lawyer reportedly likened to “oral rape”, and four charges of an indecent act with a child under the age of 16. Pell’s victims were two 13-year-old choirboys, who were abused by the then Archbishop of Melbourne in December 1996 and February 1997 in the city’s St Patrick Cathedral.
The disgraced cardinal spent his first night in jail on Wednesday after withdrawing his bail application earlier that day.
His lawyer’s say he intends to appeal the conviction.