Sex Abuse Scandal Flares As Pope Prepares for Youth Festival


July 16, 2008

SYDNEY (AFP) The scandal over child sex abuse by Catholic priests flared again Wednesday as Pope Benedict XVI prepared to take centre stage at the world's biggest Christian festival in Sydney.

While more than 200,000 young pilgrims attended beach concerts, barbecues and religious classes, the pope and the head of the Australian church, Cardinal George Pell, faced the parents of two victims of abuse.

The pilgrims are in Sydney for World Youth Day celebrations, which will be led by the pope from Thursday at the end of his four-day holiday at a retreat on Sydney's outskirts.

The scandal over sex abuse by Australian priests has intensified as parents of two victims plan to confront the pope

But the scandal over sex abuse by clergymen has partly overshadowed the festival, despite the pope's pledge on Sunday to apologise to victims as he did in the United States in April.

And in a move that could further complicate the papal visit, the pontiff's spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, cast doubt on the form of the pope's planned statement, expected on Saturday.

"I draw your attention to the term 'apology' that journalists are using," Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, told a press conference late Wednesday.

"The pope in the plane (to Australia) spoke of the problems of sexual abuse but I don't think he said he would apologise and I advise you to listen to what the pope says" when he raises the issue, he said, without elaborating.

A Samoan cultural group prepare to perform for Catholic pilgrims during World Youth Day (WYD) activities in Sydney

The pontiff was however clear when he told journalists he would examine how the church can "prevent, heal and reconcile" the past crimes of the clergy.

"This is the essential content of what we will say as we apologise," the pope had said.

The father of two girls abused by a Melbourne priest, one of whom committed suicide, meanwhile said he and his wife were on their way back to Australia from Europe to confront the church over its attitude to paedophilia.

Franciscan Friars of the Renewal perform for pilgrims during World Youth Day (WYD) activities in Sydney

Anthony Foster told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. he would not accept an apology unless the pontiff also changed the way the church and its lawyers dealt with victims of sex abuse.

"I want them to set up a system which provides lifetime help to victims, a system where they beg forgiveness of the victims," he said.

Foster said he planned to make a public statement when he arrived and would demand a response from the pope and Pell.

He said he hoped the pope would grant him an audience to hear his demands, but added: "I should not have to try to see them. They should be coming to us to beg our forgiveness."

An estimated 200,000 young pilgrims are in Australia's largest city for World Youth Day celebrations

Foster's daughter Emma committed suicide this year aged 26, after struggling to deal with having been repeatedly abused by a senior Catholic priest while she was at primary school, ABC said.

Her sister Katie was also abused and turned to alcohol in her teens before being left brain-damaged after being hit by a car while drunk, the broadcaster reported.

The priest involved, Father Kevin O'Donnell, died in 1997 after serving time in jail for multiple sex offences, but the Fosters had to fight an eight-year legal battle for compensation from the church, ABC said.

World Youth Day coordinator Bishop Anthony Fisher angered the parents by telling reporters that most people were focusing on the positive aspects of the event "rather than dwelling crankily as a few people are doing on old wounds".

Pope Benedict XVI has pledged to apologise to sex abuse victims

The Fosters told Australian news website from Tokyo's Narita airport that they were deeply hurt by the bishop's "very insensitive" comments.

The remarks showed "a complete lack of understanding of the victims, that there are so many people out there that really do have open wounds", said the girls' father.

Pell described the story of Emma Foster as "tragic", saying he had apologised to her and her family in 1998.

"I met with her parents. We offered them some financial help. We also offered them counselling," he told reporters.

The pope, who Lombardi said was likely to address the issue of sexual abuse Saturday while meeting with bishops and Australian novices, left his semi-rural retreat for St Mary's Cathedral House in central Sydney late Wednesday.

The 81-year-old pontiff, who has been recovering from jet-lag after the 20-hour flight from Rome, will make his formal arrival in Sydney in a 14-vessel "boat-a-cade" on the harbour on Thursday.

He is expected to be welcomed by crowds on spectator craft and harbourside vantage points before disembarking and addressing a gathering of some 150,000 pilgrims.

He will then take to his more traditional "Popemobile" for a tour of the city streets, which are expected to be lined with up to 500,000 people, organisers say.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.