|What Lessons Can We Learn from the Bethel Covenant Community?
By Brian Coyne
June 28, 2008
Last Monday the leading current affairs program on Australian national television, Four Corners, ran a disturbing documentary "The God of Broken Hearts" which examined the damage and pain caused to individuals and families by Christian Fellowship churches in Australia — an evangelical grouping amongst the Protestant churches.
The Four Corners website blurb introduces the program with these words:
"Four Corners has presented several reports dealing with emotional abuse by other church groups such as the Exclusive Brethren. Despite exposure, some groups persist in doing harm – while governments and mainstream churches are loathe to interfere. Chris Masters' compelling report asks whether some self-proclaimed houses of God really deserve the freedom and protection they are getting."
Readers of Catholica might like to view that program online, or read the transcript as it provides uncomfortable parallels to what this editorial is about — similar allegations and controversy that surround a group in Perth Western Australia known as the Bethel Covenant Community which is Catholic and has operated with canonical status for some three decades under the supervision of the Archdiocese of Perth. The Four Corners website containing links to the video and the transcript can be found HERE. Two months ago The West Australian newspaper (www.thewest.com.au) published a sensational two-page investigative report on the happenings at Bethel. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the Church and those who might be deemed as having something to answer for) the report was not published on the internet. Catholica did publish the text of the article in the days following its publication but for copyright reasons we restricted it to the Members' Forum. Today we are releasing that article into the public forum. As it provides the quickest overview of the principal allegations that have been published and also a broad introduction to the Bethel Covenant Community. here is the information we previously published privately from The West Australian newspaper for the benefit of members of Catholica.
Here is the text of the introductory article from the image above…
Christian chief Horgan quits amid breast-groping claims
Sex assault police called in as women list complaints
SEAN COWAN CHIEF CRIME REPORTER EXCLUSIVE [Published: Sat 10 May 2008]
A Perth Christian group with strong links to the Catholic Church has been rocked by allegations that its long term leader regularly groped the breasts of female members and encouraged many of them to have breast enlargement operations.
Kevin Horgan, the brother of Catholic benefactor and Leeuwin Estate owner Denis Horgan, resigned last month after two women came forward at the Bethel Covenant Community's regular Sunday gathering to complain about his actions.
In the following days, another six members and eight former members also complained.
The West Australian has obtained statutory declarations from some of the women about incidents in which Mr Horgan allegedly groped their breasts.
Among other complaints are allegations that Mr Horgan, 65, cupped a young woman's breasts at a 50th birthday party in 2006, massaged one woman's breasts with oil to show her husband "how it was done" and asked group members if he could inspect and feel their breasts.
It's also alleged he divided young women at a Bethel-organised Leeuwin Estate retreat into two groups based on the colour of their nipples, showed pornographic videos to some of Bethel's groups, looked up women's skirts, spoke to one group about other members' unusual sex practices, brushed "imaginary" pieces of fluff away from women's cleavages and encouraged members to have operations to change the shape or size of their breasts. But police could struggle to mount any prosecution against Mr Horgan if the women disrobed willingly or gave permission for their group leader to touch them.
The West Australian called Mr Horgan at home and was told he would not be available to comment. Bethel's other leaders have also resigned, leaving a small group of stunned members to take control.
"The new leadership of Bethel totally abhors and condemns the abuse which is alleged to have occurred," Mr Crothers said. "No Christian could accept or condone this. It is totally contrary to Christian beliefs and morals and totally unacceptable in the wider community."
"We are beginning a process of healing and reconciliation. But that will not include the past leadership. The alleged perpetrator will never have a role or place in Bethel again."
Mr Horgan, who founded the ultra-conservative Bethel group in 1979 and earned in excess of $100,000 a year as the group's executive director, last month put the sprawling 1750sqm West Leederville property he has owned since the 1970s on the market for $3.99 million.
His fundraising efforts for Bethel have been legendary and the group was famous in the 1980s for selling thousands of lamingtons to pay off the $1.25 million mortgage over its Railway Parade headquarters, which Bethel finally cleared in 2005.
Here is the text of the main article shown in the image above…
How leader 'sent them down the road to hell'
So far as members of the Bethel Covenant Community are concerned, Sunday, March 16, 2008, will forever be known as "Sunday, Bloody Sunday".
By that stage, it had been almost a year since sex allegations had first been raised following a talk by elder Pat Callahan about modesty in "speech, behaviour, appetites and dress". His calls for conservatism had seemed at odds to some of those present with the actions of Bethel's founder and leader Kevin Horgan.
In the weeks and months that followed that talk, Mr Callahan confronted Mr Horgan about the allegations and spoke to a priest and Auxiliary Bishop Donald Sproxton, who works closely with Archbishop Barry Hickey.
Bishop Sproxton asked Mr Callahan to compile a report on the allegations. He then wrote a dossier which detailed dozens of allegations against Mr Horgan.
A final report was handed to Bishop Sproxton in September. On December 3, Mr Callahan was made redundant by the leadership group after more than 15 years as a full-time employee of Bethel. He was also banned from visiting the community centre he had helped open.
But the allegations didn't simply go away. Earlier this year, Bishop Sproxton asked Mr Horgan to resign. Finally, in March, some of the claims were made public at the community's regular post-Mass Sunday morning gathering when two women told of their experiences.
In the immediate aftermath of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", Mr Horgan resigned as an employee of Bethel. He was, however, still to have led a Bethel-funded trip to the Holy Land. The following day that, too, was cancelled. The ensuing fallout has painted the community, a "charismatic renewal" ecumenical group that aims to promote religious fellowship, as something more akin to a cult, complete with a leader who could convince many of its members to "drink the Kool-aid". Among the allegations are claims that Mr Horgan:
Members were also expected to contribute a percentage of their pay to Bethel and were encouraged to hand over 10 per cent of their pre-tax income. In another of their major fundraising activities, they acted as ushers at the annual Leeuwin Estate concert and also held raffles. The money was used to pay off an ANZ loan for the company's purchase of its headquarters in the old Nestle factory across the road from West Leederville train station.
But the building was also regularly upgraded, including the construction of an auditorium, spa, sauna, showers, Catholic chapel, meeting rooms, TV, music equipment and a billiard table.
With net assets, largely consisting of the property, valued at more than $4 million, Bethel had seven employees until the redundancy of Mr Callahan and his wife Maxine and the resignations of Mr Horgan and wife Sue-Ellen. Bethel Services, one of two corporate entities linked to the community, enjoyed the benefits of being a tax-free charity.
Mr Horgan, meanwhile, enjoyed some benefits of his own. A mortgage from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd helped him buy his massive property overlooking Lake Monger while Bethel paid for extensions so he could work from home. He had a luxury company Volvo and led groups of Bethel community members on overseas trips at Bethel's expense.
For years things went along like this. Then, in 1994, allegations were first raised about some of Bethel's business activities. Father Chris Ross cleared Mr Horgan and things again returned to normal. This time, things will never be "normal" again.
One former member told The West Australian this week that most members felt betrayed by Mr Horgan, saying: "People believed him and they walked down the road to hell. These were good people who were trying to do the best by their families and they have all been sent to hell."
Another former member said Mr Horgan had turned Bethel into a cult. "He said 'I am the oracle, so to speak, and all knowledge comes through me'," the former member said. "That's when it changes into a cult."
The new leadership group, made up of Newman College's dean of curriculum Rob Crothers, corporate governance specialist Tony Walsh — who first examined the books — Greg Diamond, Claire Gourlay and part-time teacher Kathryn Probert, has ordered a full audit of Bethel's finances and has reinstated Mr Callahan's rights to visit the centre.
The new leadership group rejects claims Bethel is a cult. While some members speak in tongues, Mr Crothers said its members were ordinary citizens. "We drink beer and have parties and play football," he said. "We go away on holidays and interact with our friends, but we come here after Mass on Sunday for a bit of prayer and fellowship and to be better Catholics."
They have set aside about $35,000 for counselling and have hired former Greens senator Christabel Chamarette to provide counselling to any current or former members.
Three members of the new leadership team said they had never heard the sex complaints before and were stunned when they were raised at "Sunday, Bloody Sunday".
Ms Probert said she and other female members of Bethel were appalled at the allegations and the group planned to ensure more female members were put in positions of power. For many, the change has come too late.
The West Australian newspaper has followed this initial report up with further smaller references in its Inside Cover reports carried each day on page two of the paper and on 26 May it carried a further major story in which the Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Barry Hickey, "distanced both himself and the Church from Bethel". Here is the text of that report…
Church knew of sex claims
By SEAN COWAN and PHILIPPA PERRY, [Published Mon 26 May 2008 p3]
The Catholic Church has admitted receiving complaints about former Bethel Community Covenant leader Kevin Horgan for years but claims it was not made aware of sexual allegations until last year.
Archbishop Barry Hickey yesterday distanced both himself and the Church from Bethel, saying it was an independent group and must solve its own problems.
But in a joint statement with Auxiliary Bishop Donald Sproxton which was released to The West Australian on Friday, he said he had investigated any complaints he had received from Bethel members, all of whom were Catholic.
Bethel was rocked by the claims of several members that Mr Horgan, the founder and long-term leader of the ecumenical group, had groped their breasts or encouraged them to have breast enlargements.
Several women complained to police in March and April, but it is understood charges could not be brought because the women consented to Mr Horgan's touch. In other cases, the allegations were too old or unsubstantiated.
The West Australian has obtained statutory declarations from some of the women about incidents in which Mr Horgan allegedly groped their breasts.
Mr Horgan, the brother of Catholic benefactor and Leeuwin Estate owner Denis Horgan, has failed to return calls from The West Australian.
Archbishop Hickey said yesterday Bethel was changing its entire structure, but he would have little involvement. "The investigation is over and some people feel aggrieved for a long time, understandably," he said. "However, the reorganisation is in hand. It is an independent organisation and has its own authority structure and I don't interfere with that. They are able to run their own affairs and correct their own mistakes."
In the prepared statement, Archbishop Hickey and Bishop Sproxton said the Church had previously received complaints about Mr Horgan's "style of management and autocratic exercise of authority". The Church had pushed for change, but it had sometimes been slow hi coming and some members had left.
No sexual complaints had been made until 2007 when a "third party" complained to Bishop Sproxton, the statement said. "During his (Bishop Sproxton's) investigation of those concerns and his interviews with current and former community members, the opportunity was created for complaints to be raised about sexual misconduct, but none was raised," the statement said.
"Bishop Sproxton wrote to the community about ways to improve attitudes and practices, among the leadership and in relation to the whole community.
"The first complaint to Bishop Sproxton about sexual misconduct was made by a woman on February 28, 2008. On March 11, at a meeting of elders with Bishop Sproxton, the leader (Mr Horgan) agreed to the bishop's request to stand down from the day-to-day affairs of the community. A week later at a community meeting, other complaints of a sexual nature were raised and the leader resigned entirely from the community."
DISCLOSURE: As I have indicated previously in commentary on this Bethel matter in the pages of Catholica, reporting on this matter has been personally difficult for me and it remains so. I was previously resident in Perth and I personally know a number of significant people caught up in this tragedy on both sides of the fence. Over a long period I was engaged in much voluntary work for Archbishop Hickey and, for a period of a year or so beginning in the Jubilee Year 2000, he was a significant client of my business. I continue to have considerable respect for Archbishop Hickey and we remain on friendly terms. At one stage Archbishop Hickey and I had a misunderstanding over certain contractual matters and he readily admitted his part in the misunderstanding, apologised to me for the considerable inconvenience it caused to myself, and resolved the matter with monetary compensation (which I have since repaid to him). He was supportive of me when I decided to establish Catholica Australia some years later. I am not seeking to raise these matters on Catholica out of any desire to hurt or embarrass any person in any way connected with this embarrassment and tragedy. Unfortunately it is unavoidable that in discussing the matters that need to be discussed that some will feel embarrassed. If that does occur please appreciate I bear no malice whatsoever in what I write. I do believe though this saga does raise serious issues where a substantial number of individuals and families, many of whom I do not know, have been significantly hurt. I also believe the matter raises significant wider theological and pastoral issues that have implications well beyond this particular covenant community in one of the most remote Metropolitan dioceses in the Western world. I was first alerted to the difficulties in the Bethel community a month or six weeks prior to the article appearing in The West Australian. I was alerted to the matter by one of the significant players in the entire matter and asked for support in giving the matter some publicity. Incidentally, I was not responsible for the article in The West Australian. I had been talking to other journalists but not to any journalists at West Australian Newspapers about this matter. Since that time I have undertaken considerable research, speaking to people on all sides and others not directly involved who were able to offer professional opinions which I respect. I would like to thank all those people who have so generously assisted me via telephone and email.
Since publication of the article in The West Australian a number of semi-public blog sites and discussion boards have sprung up principally as a place of sharing for members who have been personally hurt by individuals or the ethos that surrounded the entire Bethel endeavour. These blog sites — only one of which continues to function (the others have understandably closed basically because of fears of legal liability on the part of the individuals who started them) — have also attracted some defenders of Bethel and the ideals it was originally established to promote and build. I have followed the discussions and disclosures on these blogs assiduously. Some of the participants on them have contacted me privately and provided further documentary or other evidence of discomforting problems within Bethel that have been known for at least 15 years. In conjunction with this editorial here at Catholica we are going to establish a forum where members and former members of the Bethel Community can discuss the situation with some legal protection. We will not allow any defamatory comments to be published about any individuals. That does not mean no criticism of individuals will be allowed. Fair criticism is acceptable. Defamation and slander is not. My own personal view is that it appears some individuals might have been misguided in their leadership and there were certainly significant personality clashes within the community over a significant period of time. It is for others to decide how those matters are eventually resolved. In my view there have also been a number of heroic individuals over the last 15 years who, at considerable cost to themselves, have attempted to alert outside authorities to problems within the community. Some of those people did occupy leadership positions and have had to endure a mixed bag of praise and criticism for not acting early enough but, when they eventually did, at least gaining some praise to offset the earlier criticisms.
THE 1994 COMPLAINT: Let me disclose here what I know of the circumstances of an earlier enquiry that was conducted by the Archbishop, or people appointed by him, in approximately 1994. The Bethel Covenant Community has links into the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. Back in the early 1990s it was host to a national or international conference in Perth of Catholic Charismatic Renewal groups. I understand it was members of those groups external to Bethel who became concerned at the seeming infringement of individual liberty and personal responsibility that was shouldered by the individual members of Bethel. They became aware of this through the social chit-chat that goes on at any conference where members of different organisations share their stories. As I understand the situation, the level of concern was of such magnitude that it was a delegation from these outside groups which approached the Archbishop of Perth asking him to undertake some investigation. There were no issues or complaints of sexual impropriety as I understand it. The principal cause for complaint, were similar to the complaints aired on the Four Corners program last Monday night in the case of the Brisbane Christian Fellowship. They concerned a domineering, possibly out-of-control egotistical, leadership style by those who led the community at the time where members were essentially deprived of personal liberty to make decisions about their lives, or the lives of their families, in matters that were clearly well beyond the jurisdiction of any leader of a community like this. These matters cut to the heart of Catholic teaching on the subject of Subsidiarity which argues that, as far as possible, maximum responsibility for decision-making should be devolved to the lowest level within the Church. Families and individuals have important rights — no, more than that, a personal responsibility to be learning to make decisions for themselves. Our Church does not teach that we hand all responsibility over to priests or lay leaders. Higher levels in the Church are expressly warned against taking responsibility away from individuals and communities at a lower level in the hierarchical chain that characterises the Church. The complaint essentially being voiced in 1994 was that here, at one of the very lowest levels of the institutional Church — in an essentially lay-led organisation — we had lay leaders assuming they had more competence to make decisions for individuals and families than they had a right to assume.
I do not know the official outcome of that enquiry. I do understand that the Church authorities did believe that whatever response they made after their enquiry had "solved the problem". It is very evident from my discussions with a number of individuals, some of whom today occupy leadership positions in the wider Church community, and from information disclosed by other individuals on the blog sites, some of whom subsequently resigned from the Bethel Community, that the matters were not perceived as "being resolved" satisfactorily at the grass roots level of the organisation. The fact of the recent fresh set of complaints to the authorities, and now the public embarrassment and disclosures of what has been going on would seem to bear that out.
While it is commendable in the third article from The West Australian cited above that the Archbishop of Perth shows a good understanding of the principle of Subsidiarity, and he is endeavouring to apply it in the clean-up of the affairs of the Bethel Community, I would suggest that he is perhaps pushing the principle a little bit too far in trying to distance himself and the Church from Bethel and the pain that has been inflicted on what seems to be a significant number of individuals and families in the past. The plain fact is that Bethel, compared to many other lay organisations, had special status within the Archdiocese. There are very few lay organisations, I would suggest, that have their own private chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and a priest-liaison person or chaplain with quite the involvement we have seen over the years at Bethel. Given what is now emerging in the public domain it might be strongly suggested there ought to have been far greater guidance and spiritual direction, if nothing else, regarding the particular theological outlook and pastoral practices that were being pursued by at least some in the lay leadership of the Bethel Covenant Community. Given that today there are individuals and families carrying significant hurt, including children who have become separated from their parents, the broader Catholic community does have a responsibility to help "clean up the mess". One of the responsibilities any bishop takes on, just as leaders of businesses do, or politicians, is that the leader articulates the response of the wider community they represent. Sometimes that responsibility is in saying sorry on behalf of the wider community and seeing what can be done to help return everything and everyone to some kind of equilibrium where they can start their lives afresh with "as clean a slate as possible". It is to be commended that the new leadership at Bethel has offered access to cost-free counselling services to all who wish to avail themselves of it. I believe though more is required which I'll explain in the next paragraph.
SACRAMENT AND SIGN: Our Church is supposed to be one of the "experts" in the world about the importance of Sacrament and Sign. I think the Bethel situation provides a great opportunity to show that. This is a situation, on a small scale, analogous to the recent national apology extended to the indigenous and islander peoples of this nation. There are people hurting. I know there are children (some now adults) who had no choice about being brought up in the Bethel environment who are hurting today. We as a Church owe them an apology. Here was an experiment, pastoral initiative or call-it-what-you-will, that "went wrong" and people's lives were hurt or screwed up. The Archbishop and his predecessor were most joyful when the Bethel people originally came along with a new initiative that looked as though it might be a breathe of fresh air in the lay Church. They would have been "marching down there" to celebrate liturgies and "give signs" that this all had official endorsement and the people running it were all "legit" and properly qualified. Today, after the proverbials have hit the fan, I would submit there is equally a responsibility to be "down there" saying sorry and inviting the past, the present and the emotionally maimed members of that community to some liturgical or other symbolic "service of healing and reconciliation". Words are vitally important in these matters. The indigenous people of Australia have taught us that. WE, AS A WIDER CATHOLIC COMMUNITY, NEED TO SAY 'SORRY' TO ALL THE FAMILIES AND INDIVIDUALS WHOSE LIVES WERE DISRUPTED BY THE BETHEL EXPERIMENT! Our bishops need to be the ones showing leadership in demonstrating that genuine sorrow and compassion. There is another complicating factor in all of this. Kevin Horgan, the embarrassed former leader of the community, was not some "anonymous Jo Blo" who happened to rise to a position of lay leadership in the lay Church in Western Australia and who was asked to resign when things got too hot and that is deemed to be the end of the matter. The man had pedigree in a larger family that is well-known to have had a very high profile in the Church at various times. That would have given people "signing into Bethel" some degree of extra confidence that they were "safe" and in "the hands of a good leader" who was perceived to be in good standing with the Archdiocesan leadership. Again, the wider Catholic community owes an apology — in the sense of "Sacramental Sign" — that we are "sorry" this trust was misplaced for whatever reason. It is a responsibility of the leader of that "wider Catholic community" to recognise that an apology needs to be extended to those whose lives were transgressed in any way.
THEOLOGICAL, EVEN CHRISTOLOGICAL, QUESTIONS: There is much more still to be discussed in this entire matter. We, the wider community need to listen to the stories of those who were hurt. I personally believe there are wider and extremely valuable lessons to be learned from some of these people. I have personally spoken to some very mature people who resigned from Bethel even up to a decade ago who have quietly reflected on the whole initiative, or experiment, and who have valuable lessons of wider import in Catholic thinking on issues like "obedience — what do we mean by it" and the "role and place of women in the family, in the Church and in society". These are largely theological, even Christological, questions in this particular context. What's God's understanding of "obedience" compared to what some Church leaders would have us believe? What's God's understanding of "the role of women in the family, the Church and in society: compared to what some Church leaders would have us believe?
LESSONS FOR LAY-LED COMMUNITIES: The future Church may be heading in a direction simply through the unavailability of priests where different forms of lay-led communities will play a hugely more important role than they have played in the past. In yesterday's email, I mentioned the emergent Wellspring Community with looks to be a fabulous development. There are also a heck of a lot in the Catholic Church not too dissimilar to Bethel with authoritarian rather than democratic leadership models and where there might be great danger of a repeat of the Bethel disaster, or the sort of thing we saw being played out on Four Corners in a different denomination.
HUMAN SEXUAL BEHAVIOUR: There is another important issue that needs to be addressed here. It is the issue of human sexual behaviour. It can be argued that this is an experiment where the much touted "Theology of the Body" of the late John Paul II went "right off the rails" by naive individuals doing absolutely stupid things under a totally flawed understanding of what the late JPII was on about. (Talk about "give an inch and take mile", some of what has been disclosed at Bethel stretches that to about ten thousand miles!) I expect Catholic society is going to see much more of this before real sense finally returns to the Church on our understanding of human sexuality and how it is expressed. I doubt very much that any of our ecclesial leaders would have the slightest hope of seeing the connection between how the thinking behind "The Theology of the Body" led to the behaviour written about in The West Australian article above or which were even more entertainingly, and hilariously, written about on the blogs that have now disappeared out of cyberspace. It would be simply impossible to see the connection if they cannot yet see the damage that Humanae Vitae has caused to human society and the Church which they lead.
QUESTIONS OF FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY: Perhaps one of the greatest areas of need though is in questions of financial accountability. There have been serious allegations raised in widespread places that Bethel was engaged in two principal and on-going fund-raising activities. The production and sale of lamingtons on a mass scale through schools and shopping centres and an annual car raffle. There are allegations that these endeavours were "sold" to the public as "charitable endeavours for youth" but that the end destination of the funds was in the purchase of significant property assets for the community, or servicing the mortgages on property purchases, and perhaps into executive salaries. Now it could be argued that in the future that property was of "charitable" benefit to young people — to wit, the children of adult members of the Bethel Community. The new leadership of Bethel has indicated that a full audit is underway. If, perchance, the Bethel experiment is over and the new leadership are unable to re-build the organisation, what happens to the now substantial property assets that have been built up over the past three decades? Should the proceeds of any realisation of the assets be distributed to the members of the community over the years who helped build those assets — yes, even the women and kids who baked all those lamingtons early each morning — or will the Archdiocese of Perth be the beneficiary? (I suppose the Archdiocese could be counted as "a charity", eh?!!!) As things presently stand the new leaders of the Bethel Community might come to the view that they have a responsibility to not only the continuing members of Bethel but those from the past who helped build "the community and the asset" to disclose not only the value of the asset but who are the potential beneficiaries of the Trust, or commercial/charitable entity that holds the legal responsibility as present and future owners of the asset in case it has to be disposed of.
LISTENING TO THE STORIES OF THOSE WHO WERE HURT: Hopefully the forum we will establish on Catholica will enable the wider Catholic community to listen quietly to the stories of some of those whose personal lives were affected by this initiative or experiment. I do have a number of stories known to me that I will post on the forum in due course where we need to protect the identities of the individuals concerned. One case I have is particularly tragic but just disclosing the incident almost automatically identifies the individual and the family and that might load them with even more hurt. I am still trying to find a way around that dilemma and hope, with the help of the family concerned to write their story up in the next few days. In the meantime I will open the forum today. We do welcome, as we do on all our forums, individuals posting under pseudonyms. Even under pseudonyms though I would request people be measured in their public criticisms of particular individuals. Any posts that are deemed to be at risk of defaming identifiable individuals will be removed and persons infringing in that matter placed on notice of having their freedom to post withdrawn should there be a repeat infringement. The forum can be found by clicking the image to the right above or at: www.catholica.com.au/forum/forum.php?category=9
Finally, could I take the risk by suggesting to Kevin Horgan that you have a responsibility in this entire matter also. Not only are there individuals in the community you once led for such a long period seriously hurting, there are also a stack of people in very august positions in the Church, even beyond Western Australia, who are carrying a significant amount of embarrassment today because of this mess. I wouldn't go doing "a Bondy" and flaunting your wealth. Some one might quietly suggest an apology might be in order at the very least.
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