Some Wounds Are Too Painful to Heal

The Australian
July 18, 2008,25197,24037627-16741,00.html

The papal apology is more important than ever

IT takes only a smidgin of compassion to appreciate the hurt and pain of Christine and Anthony Foster as they see images of thousands of exuberant young people revelling in the camaraderie of World Youth Day. Had it not been for the depravity of a Melbourne priest, John Kevin O'Donnell, who raped their daughters, Emma and Katherine, at primary school, the girls might have been among the crowds. Tragically, Emma committed suicide earlier this year at 26, after battling depression, anorexia, self-harm and drug abuse for years. Katherine drank heavily before being disabled when hit by a drunken driver in 1999. O'Donnell died in prison 10 years ago. He was jailed in 1995, aged 78, after pleading guilty to abusing two girls and 10 boys in the parishes of Chelsea, Seymour, Dandenong, Hastings and Oakleigh over three decades.

The fact that O'Donnell was moved around so much, and allowed near children in parish after parish, exemplifies all that was wrong with the church's furtive cover-ups of abuse in the past. Amid the current fracas, timed by the Fosters and the ABC's Lateline program to capitalise on the Pope's presence in Australia, it should be acknowledged that the church has lifted its standards in handling complaints in the past decade.

A year after O'Donnell went to jail, George Pell became archbishop of Melbourne and established an independent investigation commission headed by Peter O'Callaghan QC. The rest of the church adopted the Towards Healing protocol. Dr Pell apologised to the Fosters in 1998 and stands by that apology. They rejected the $50,000 compensation offered under the Melbourne scheme, as was their right, and pursued the matter through the courts. After eight years, they received a large payout, but they remain unhappy with the church's attitudes to victims of sexual abuse.

Lateline's efforts to sheet the blame home to Cardinal Pell are misguided. He took no part in the Fosters' civil case, and the abuse occurred under his predecessor's watch.

Amid the euphoria of World Youth Day, it is regrettable that the event's co-ordinator, Bishop Anthony Fisher, 47, complained insensitively about those "dwelling crankily as a few people are doing on old wounds". A well-educated lawyer and bioethicist, Bishop Fisher's episcopal motto is "Living the truth in charity". His frustration at an issue from so long ago rearing its head during World Youth Day is understandable. But being known for his concern for the vulnerable, he should understand that some wounds, however old, go on hurting if they involve the loss of a beloved child. That the wounds were inflicted by a priest makes the sting harder.

Bishop Fisher qualified his remarks, affirming the need "to do all we can to prevent this happening again and to bring healing and justice to the victims". He has done a top job with World Youth Day. But the comment was far from the spirit of the Good Shepherd never giving up on a lost sheep "with hope diminished or even exhausted" evoked by the Cardinal in his sermon at Tuesday's opening mass.

Cases such as this underline the importance of separating church processes from those of police and the courts. Both the Melbourne system and Towards Healing strongly urge complainants to refer criminal matters to the police. Up to a decade ago, the church mistakenly believed it could handle such issues in-house. The adoption of the protocols was an admission this had been wrong.

If, as expected, the Pope's apology to abuse victims is meaningful and heartfelt, it should be accepted. To make amends, the church should commit itself to fund continuing counselling for victims, regardless of whether they accept church compensation or seek redress through the courts.


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