Toward Never Another Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Catherine Smibert
July 19, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia, JULY 19, 2008 ( Benedict XVI apologized on Saturday to the victims of sexual abuse in Australia, a gesture the Pope also said must be supported by measures to prevent the crisis from happening again.

Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, the president of the Australia's episcopal conference, agrees that the Church needs a plan to not only respond, but also to prevent these acts from happening in the future.

During the past week Archbishop Wilson has been personally accompanying the Pontiff as he presides at the World Youth Day celebrations, which will culminate on Sunday with the closing Mass.

In this interview with ZENIT, the archbishop comments on the concrete measures needed to prevent a future sexual abuse crisis, as well as the effect World Youth Day has had on Sydney.

Q: How did you see Benedict XVI's mention of the issue of sexual abuse in his homily to the clergy of Australia?

Archbishop Wilson: The Holy Father spoke beautifully as the pastor of the Church about sexual abuse in Australia, which was perpetrated by clergy and religious.

And he was speaking about how much this has pained him personally and how much grief that it gives him and how things must be done to respond compassionately, particularly to the people who have been abused. But also to do the work that's necessary to make sure that this will and cannot happen again; that we need to work out ways in which children can be protected and looked after in our communities without being any danger to them.

Q: Could you give us a glance of what is being done, and what you think the Church in Australia could still do regarding this issue?

Archbishop Wilson: I think that people everywhere are working really hard at devising the most appropriate ways to respond, and in a really good manner, trying to help people who are the victims, and to do that in such a way that we admit the guilt that's part of all this.

And we admit the fact that these people who belong to the Church and have done such terrible things and are responsible for it, so we must respond to these in ways which are appropriate, but equally realistic and authentic.

It's no use just giving apologies and then doing nothing about it. There has to be concrete ways of dealing with it. And in Australia we've been very strong on this, that since 1996, we've had a program established called Towards Healing that has been directed at doing just this.

It's been working really well. People who are victims have much to tell us, and the Towards Healing program has, in fact, been changed in its procedures a couple of times in response to what victims say.

Q. But as I've heard you say before, that's just one area where the Church is doing the best job that we can, right?

Archbishop Wilson: Yes. I've been quite concerned for a long time about the fact that there are several points about the program the Church needs to have in order to deal with these issues.

The first is that we must have a program to deal with the perpetrators. If people do this, then they've got to be stopped and stopped with all the power that the Church has.

Secondly, that if there's any criminal activity that it gets reported to the authorities directly.

Thirdly, we have to be very careful then about our selection process for people coming into the priesthood and religious life to make sure that they are as healthy as possible, psychologically as well as physically, and well prepared for the life that they're being asked to live.

Fourthly, like the Holy Father said today -- and I applaud him for doing so -- we need to be looking at what we need to do as a community in order to develop better child protection systems. That means that we have to look at what kinds of processes we have to go through in order to give children the best level of protection we can.

Q: After so much skepticism about the Church from the secular media, what do you think World Youth Day has done to shift that attitude toward the Church?

Archbishop Wilson: I am not sure of what the overall affect will be, but I think that the World Youth Day experience, not only in Sydney but in other areas of Australia, is one that gives people a new perspective on the Church.

Because often people think that the Catholic Church has no living connection with young people at all. And there are difficulties around that because we live in a culture that doesn't encourage people to have faith or to respond to the Church.

But the fact of the matter is that there are almost 500,000 young people from around the world who are here almost explicitly saying that they want to affirm their faith; that they've come here to be led, not only by the Pope, but by their own bishops.

They've been involved in a program of formation since they've been here which is filled not only with fun and excitement, but one that has a fundamental spiritual edge to it. This seems to me that it gives us a different perspective on the life of the Church at the moment.

Q: What does the Church in Australia need to do after World Youth Day?

Archbishop Wilson: I don't think our work is ever done. Trying to explain who we are, not so much by what we say but by the way that we live.

I could give people long lectures on the theology of the Church and talk about the reality of "communio." And that's good and powerful, but is nothing compared to the real experience of "communio."

That's what we have to do. We have to give young people everywhere this experience of community. And World Youth Day activities have offered that, as I saw close hand while visiting a Sydney parish to present a Catechesis for a group.

When I arrived early in the morning, the parish community were generously feeding and caring for the pilgrims, which affected the way they interacted with one another. They then gathered for prayer and engaged in a forum with myself, which was followed by Mass and then lunch. The youth were overwhelmed at the generosity and care.

Something happens to you when you go somewhere and people generously give you food.

That's a real expression of our "communio" and hospitality, which assists in presenting our mission to the world.

And St. Francis of Assisi was right when he said, "You have to preach all the time, but you use words rarely."

We can use beautiful words to explain what we're doing but it doesn't have the impact when people experience this love in a physically interactive way.


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