Father's Message to Church: the Wounds Are Still Open

By Joel Gibson, Jano Gibson and Erik Jensen
Sydney Morning Herald

July 17, 2008

A CENTREPIECE of the Pope's visit to Sydney - his slated apology to victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy - is in danger of ringing hollow after an insensitive comment by the bishop in charge of World Youth Day, victims' groups and experts say.

The World Youth Day co-ordinator, Bishop Anthony Fisher, said yesterday that some victims were "crankily dwelling on old wounds" as pilgrims celebrated.

He was responding to news that a Melbourne man, Anthony Foster, was returning from London this morning to confront Cardinal George Pell and Pope Benedict over the repeated rape of two of his daughters by Father Kevin O'Donnell at a primary school in Melbourne's Oakleigh parish.

Anthony Foster and his daughter Katherine.
Photo by Photo: Lateline

The Archbishop of Sydney refused to answer questions yesterday and gave no indication that he would meet Mr Foster, as he had requested. Cardinal Pell said his role in the case was limited. He described the case as "tragic".

Mr Foster's eldest daughter, Emma, committed suicide last year, aged 26, after a long struggle with drugs. His second daughter, Katherine, who turned to drink, was hit by a car in 1999 and left physically and mentally disabled and requiring 24-hour care.

Mr Foster told the ABC's Lateline on Tuesday that the church's aggressive eight-year defence of Emma's civil claim - after she rejected an offer of $50,000 - had contributed to her death.

Yesterday he branded Bishop Fisher's comments outrageous. "We are still grieving over our daughters, and many other victims are struggling every day. To think this issue is over when the abuse stops is ridiculous. There are people self-harming, committing suicide, drinking, using drugs, because of sexual assaults committed by Catholic priests."

He said he had no negative feeling towards World Youth Day but hoped the Pope would show more compassion than Bishop Fisher.

"We want the church to be fully open, to look after the victims for their lifetimes, to give them a chance of survival and a decent life. That would require a very tiny part of the church's resources."

Cardinal Pell said he had met the Fosters and offered compensation that covered a portion of Emma's counselling. He said he was not archbishop when the abuse occurred and had left Melbourne before the civil action had begun.

"I was not named as a partner in that civil action, not named as a defendant. I took no part in that civil case. My apology still stands; I repeat it. It has never been withdrawn. It's a tragic case in every sense of the word."

His apology appeared to contradict the Victorian archdiocese's defence in the Fosters' civil claim, in which it denied the abuse had occurred.

Chris MacIsaac, the head of the Broken Rites victims' support group, said the Pope should apologise to the Fosters.

The retired bishop who set up the church's Towards Healing system for helping sexual abuse victims, Geoffrey Robinson, said Bishop Fisher would be "deeply regretting having said those words by [this] morning if he actually said them".

"World Youth Day is a wonderful opportunity for young people to feel part of a bigger movement and to meet other young people from around the world, and I wish it well. At the same time, I'm not so keen on the more triumphant aspects of World Youth Day and it can never be divorced from the realities of the revelations of sexual abuse."

A psychologist, Michelle Mulvihill, who ran the St John of God order's Towards Healing program, said Bishop Fisher's comments were typical of "an absolute lack of understanding of the impact [of sexual abuse]" among the church hierarchy.

A child psychologist, Michael Carr-Gregg, who works with abuse victims, said the remark would "undermine the sincerity of any papal apology and, frankly, makes it look hollow".

But Sister Angela Ryan, prevention officer for Towards Healing, said many victims found discussion of the issue painful. "For some people, World Youth Day will be difficult, for some it will help them move on."

The director of the Vatican press office, Frank Lombardi, gave a broad hint that sexual abuse would be raised by the Pope at a mass attended by clergy and seminarians at St Mary's Cathedral on Saturday.

Bishop Fisher did not respond to media inquiries.


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