Bishop Anthony Fisher under Fire after Dismissing Sexual Abuse Case

By Emily Bourke

16 July, 2008

[with audio]

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Meanwhile World Youth Day organiser Bishop Anthony Fisher has been criticised over the Church's response to a case of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Melbourne. The story featured on the ABC's Lateline program last night.

During a morning news conference, Bishop Fisher said people were "dwelling crankily on old wounds". His remark has enraged advocates for sex abuse victims. Emily Bourke reports.

EMILY BOURKE: Last week the Archbishop of Sydney George Pell was hoping the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic priests wouldn't overshadow World Youth Day celebrations.

But those hopes were dashed when World Youth Day organiser Bishop Anthony Fisher was questioned this morning about how the church handled the sexual abuse of two young sisters by their parish priest in Melbourne.

ANTHONY FISHER: Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying delighting in the beauty and goodness of these young people and the hope, the hope for us doing these sorts of things better in the future, as we saw last night, rather than, than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds. The Cardinal has lead in this, in the Church in this country; he tried to put in better and better processes to deal for these things so that we get it right.

EMILY BOURKE: The Melbourne priest accused of raping Emma and Katie Foster was Father Kevin O'Donnell. He was never tried on the Foster case but was convicted for other child sex crimes in 1995 and sent to jail. He died in 1997.

In 1996, George Pell was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne. Two years later he apologised to the Foster sisters and encouraged the family to enter the Towards Healing Program, which capped compensation payments at $50,000.

The family rejected the offer, instead opting to pursue the Church through the courts for eight years. The older sister went on to suffer from anorexia and drug abuse before she committed suicided earlier this year. The younger sister turned to alcohol, and now needs 24 hour care after being hit by a car.

Their father, Anthony Foster remains furious that how the Church and Cardinal Pell responded and in an interview to be aired on the ABC's Lateline interview tonight, Anthony Foster says the comments today from Bishop Fisher are beyond hurtful.

ANTHONY FOSTER: It's unbelievable almost to hear a Bishop of the Church make comments like that about victims. It's astounding and if I hadn't heard his voice say it, I think I wouldn't have believed it. We need an open ended arrangement to look after the victims of clergy sexual abuse. No limits, full and free flow of help to victims for the rest of their lives, because they will suffer for the rest of their lives.

EMILY BOURKE: Advocates for abuse victims are appalled.

HELEN LAST: We've had none stop calls from family members who are angry and distressed about this young Bishop's response. They are calling now for him to be reviewed in terms of what is his knowledge, why is he in such a position of power.

EMILY BOURKE: Helen Last from the group In Good Faith says the comments are insensitive, ill-informed.

HELEN LAST: Old wounds that are unhealed can cause just as many problems into the present time for a person. Anyone who has got any medical understanding would know that. As a recent wound, in fact, old wounds cause more problems for a body than fresh wounds and they deserve just as much attention.

EMILY BOURKE: Late today, Cardinal George Pell defended his handling of the case and said his apology to the Foster family still stands.

GEORGE PELL: I apologised to Emma in 1998. I met with her parents. Now we offered them some financial help. We also offered them counselling for Emma and Emma availed herself of that counselling for 10 years and we contributed substantially towards those counselling costs. It's a tragic case, in every sense of the word and I, I repeat my apologies.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, ending Emily Bourke's report.


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