Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

The Canberra Times reports on the Pope`s visit to Australia. It would appear that the visit has been overshadowed to an extent by the scandal of sex abuse despite the fierce and unequivocal condemnation by Pope Benedict XVI.

"WITH expectations in the past week waning that Pope Benedict XVI might saysorry to sex abuse victims of clergy, it was heartening to see yesterday's decisive apology.

It has been the elephant in the room throughout what has been an overwhelmingly celebratory week for the Catholic Church during its World Youth Day activities.

The pontiff's apology was unequivocal such abuses were a source of shame, deserving of condemnation, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

He described the ''evil'' acts as a grave betrayal of trust. The issue of sex abuse has shadowed the Catholic Church for too long. Stories of young victims surface, sometimes years after the fact, and accusations of mishandling of many allegations have been a blight on the institution.

It was illustrated again last week when Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, the leader of the Catholic Church in Australia, was forced to defend his handling of a number of historic allegations. More distressing was the case of Emma and Katherine Foster, whose parents Anthony and Christine flew to Sydney in the hope of securing an audience with the Pope or Cardinal Pell.

Melbourne priest Kevin O'Donnell raped the couple's two daughters, Emma and Katherine, when they were in primary school.

After an eight-year legal battle, the family was compensated (out of court). Emma Foster committed suicide this year at the age of 26, while her sister Katherine drank heavily and was left disabled when she was hit by a drunk driver in 1999.

Will an apology ever be enough for the Fosters? Why did they have such a long and devastating battle to get justice?

While the Pope's words cannot undo the acts perpetrated on innocent followers of their faith, it is a way forward.

For the Catholic Church to remain relevant in this 21st century action must now follow these sentiments.

The church must support procedures, structures and services. And above all, it must thoroughly and honestly examine the causes for such sex abuse and develop solutions to prevent this continuing spectre. "

The Australian newspaper The Age reported the matter of the apology thus:

"WITH much-anticipated words, Pope Benedict XVI has apologised to Australia's victims of sexual abuse by clergy and people in religious orders, declaring abuse an "evil" whose perpetrators must be "brought to justice".

"I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering," he said.

The words of apology yesterday were not included in his planned speech, which "acknowledged the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious", but the Pope departed from the script to add the actual words of apology and to identify personally with victims.

He continued: "These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust,deserve unequivocal condemnation. They have caused great pain and have damaged the church's witness."

But a Melbourne father, whose two daughters were raped repeatedly by a priest, now dead, at a Catholic primary school, said he was "deeply unhappy" with the apology.

"How can he share our suffering?" asked Anthony Foster, whose daughter Emma never overcame the horrors of her abuse and killed herself this year. His other daughter, Katherine, turned to drink and was disabled in a car crash.

"He can't understand what happened to us. He hasn't had children or lost children.If he sat down with us and watched the tears flow from my eyes, he might begin to understand. It's only an apology. We've had apologies before."

The Fosters interrupted an overseas trip and flew to Sydney hoping to meet the Pope and ask him to get the church to provide physical, emotional and psychological help for victims for as long as they needed.

Mr Foster said the church was not dealing effectively with abuse but was hiding behind the legal system to avoid helping people.

There had been indications that the expected apology yesterday might be toned down because of further controversy before and during the papal visit, including

- The Fosters speaking out about how Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, as archbishop of Melbourne, had stalled compensation for their daughters.

- Cardinal Pell admitting that he had mishandled an abuse complaint in 2003.

- A World Youth Day co-ordinator, Bishop Anthony Fisher, complaining that some people were "crankily dwelling on old wounds" rather than delighting in the festivities.

Papal media director Father Federico Lombardi told The Sunday Age on Friday the Pope had been kept fully informed about these developments.

Yesterday, at a packed St Mary's Cathedral for the consecration of the new altar,the Pope asked Catholics to work with their bishops "in combating this evil".

"Victims should receive compassion and care and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice. It is an urgent priority to promote a safer and more wholesome environment, especially for young people," he said.

But victims and their advocates were sceptical that the apology would produce change.

Chris MacIsaac, president of advocacy group Broken Rites, said more needed to be done.

"We want the victims to be treated fairly, we don't want them to feel that they have been shut out, we don't want them to be re-abused by church authorities."

Psychiatrist and abuse specialist Professor Carolyn Quadrio of the University of NSW said the Pope had "opened the door" after the church had compounded harm to victims by refusing to accept responsibility and by stonewalling. "It's important for offenders to be brought to justice, which means referring cases to the police quickly so they are investigated independently," she said.

It was important to provide treatment swiftly because often victims had to go through a rigorous process to receive help.

Leading Catholic commentator Paul Collins said the Pope had done all he could. "There really needs to be a serious public commitment on behalf of all the bishops to stand up and simply say, 'We have not done this well in the past. We have tried, but we have not succeeded'."