Brisbane Times [Brisbane, Australia]
February 1, 2023
By Simon Hunt
As people arrived one by one to put up ribbons at St Mary’s Cathedral over the past week, Ballarat child abuse survivor Paul Auchettl would quietly approach them. Every person had a story about their own experience of abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church, or stories of abuse suffered by someone they loved. Children would emerge from the faces of 60-year-old men and women, and Auchettl would guide them through the release that the tying of a ribbon would bring, like a contemporary shaman.
Every day the fence would be picked “clean” of the presence of abused children that each ribbon represents. It was this removal that most deeply troubled Auchettl and his fellow Ballarat survivor Trevor Coad, who accompanied him to Sydney. Their seven-year ribbon campaign in their hometown, the epicentre of revelations in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, has progressed to some sort of understanding between campaigners and the church. But Sydney is different, years behind the rest of Australian Catholicism in coming to terms with a post-royal commission world. Auchettl was overwhelmed by the scale of the cathedral he had never visited, and is committed to forming connections between what he perceives as disparate and scattered victim-survivors in NSW.
Like many, I was disgusted by the history-erasing hagiographies that followed the death of Cardinal George Pell – declaring his actions to be saint-like; comparing him to a crucified Christ who had died at the hands of “political correctness”; claiming that he had gone to jail for having had the temerity to “talk back to the culture”. Akin to the worst, two-bit fairground magic act in history, these op-eds simply focused on the High Court, setting aside Pell’s personal conviction for child abuse, and completely ignored his decades-long enabling of paedophile priests through a career-long inaction, as documented and summarised in the final royal commission report. Auchettl grew up with George Pell around the house, he knows Pell’s family, but even he fell victim to one of the priests that Pell allowed to continue with their criminal behaviour.
On a whim a few weeks ago, I posted some Google Earth photos of the front fence of St Mary’s Cathedral on Twitter, and suggested that we cover them with ribbons, declaring that I would do so the next day. Immediately, I wondered why it should wait that long. I left my apartment and walked to St Mary’s, stopping at a $2 shop to buy some ribbons, and posted photos of my meagre initial effort. The images gained some virality, as my tweets sometimes do in the context of the “Pauline Pantsdown” avatar account I maintain, some quarter of a century after my brief B-celebrity triumph.
Each day I would return to find scraps left of others’ efforts, with constant removal of displays by St Mary’s staff, and I would refresh the display. The depth of meaning that the campaign held in the hearts of victim-survivors became abundantly clear, but I wondered whether the action would last the two weeks that remained before Pell’s memorial service. A cathedral insider informed me that the long delay of the memorial service was essentially a cost-saving exercise. Many international Catholic dignitaries were already travelling to Suva for a conference on February 5, so keeping Pell on ice until February 2 would significantly reduce the airfares for a quick jump to Fiji.
The arrival of Auchettl and Coad from Ballarat changed everything. We were soon joined by the passionate Tess Hall, who had a large bag of ribbons and an impressive media resume, so we became a team. On the first day, Auchettl’s quiet approach to MaryAnn, who was in tears attaching ribbons for people she had lost, brought her spirit and life back to her face. He took the same calm approach to an aggressive, violence-threatening man who spewed quotes from The Australian editorials about Pell’s “innocence” in our faces. Of course, this man never heard of the royal commission, and finally backed away to his car. Two small children in the car faced us through the car windows, one holding up a crucifix, the other a photo of the Virgin Mary.
Our decision to hold a mass ribboning event today resulted in the blanketing of the St Mary’s Cathedral fence with a sea of ribbons, and a final agreement from St Mary’s management to allow a large proportion of the ribbons to stay for the February 2 memorial service. The purpose of a memorial service is to remember someone’s legacy, and the legacy of George Pell would be incomplete without the inclusion of the voices of child sexual abuse victim-survivors.
Every ribbon has a voice.
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