World Youth Day: Shamed Catholic Church in damage control, further tainted by Pell-auxiliary Bishop Print E-mail

as Benedict XVI offers disappointingly gratuitous words of apology


The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Friday July 18 2008


A bishop's remark, not parents' grief, opens old wounds

LAST week, when Cardinal George Pell was trying to explain to journalists how he had failed to understand that a case of sexual assault was a case of sexual assault, he expressed the hope that the controversy would have died down by the time the Pope arrived in Sydney for World Youth Day. If there was ever a chance that the continuing insensitivity of church authorities on the issue of clerical sexual abuse might have been forgotten in seven days, however, the cardinal's own auxiliary, Bishop Anthony Fisher, has made it impossible.

On Wednesday, as the parents of two teenage girls who were raped by a priest in Melbourne were flying from London to seek a meeting with the cardinal, Bishop Fisher complained to a news conference about the family's reaction. Their anger and suffering, he thought, were spoiling World Youth Day for everyone else. "Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in, the beauty and goodness of these young people (the World Youth Day pilgrims)," he said "… rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds."

The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines "cranky", the adjective from which "crankily" derives, thus: "eccentric, especially obsessed with a particular theory; ill-tempered or crotchety". And what was the history that Bishop Fisher was accusing Anthony and Christine Foster of being obsessed, ill-tempered and crotchety about? Their daughters, Emma and Katherine, were repeatedly raped by a priest, Kevin O'Donnell, when they were students at Sacred Heart School, Oakleigh, from 1988 to 1993. Emma, who became anorexic and a drug abuser, committed suicide earlier this year. She was 26. Her younger sister, Katherine, turned to alcohol and now requires 24-hour care after being hit by a car. As for Kevin O'Donnell, he is dead, too. He was never tried in the Foster case, but in 1995 was convicted of other child-sex crimes and sent to prison.

Any parent would understand why the Fosters cannot forget any of this, but one does not have to be a parent to grasp the simple emotional fact that victims of sexual abuse and their families always live with the memory of what has happened. It would have been grossly insensitive if Bishop Fisher had resorted to psychobabble, and urged Anthony and Christine Foster to "get over it" or "move on". What he said, however, was even worse. He called them cranks, effectively equating their desire for justice for their daughters and other victims with the notions of those who believe in grand conspiracies and alien invasions. A crank is someone other people do not have to take seriously, and wish would go away.

The day after Bishop Fisher's comment, WYD officials went into damage-control mode. Danny Casey, chief operating officer for WYD, said that the bishop was a compassionate man who had "misspoken", invoking the word used by politicians who have said something they wish they had never uttered. No doubt the bishop also now wishes he had never said anything about people dwelling crankily on old wounds, but it remains appalling that a man in his position could have said such things in the first place. Not for the first time, victims of clerical sexual abuse and their families have been made to feel that they are the problem, a response to them that compounds the pain and injustice they have already suffered.

Meanwhile, as Mr Casey was trying to put out the fires started by Bishop Fisher, the head of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, was hosing down expectations that Pope Benedict would make a formal apology to abuse victims during his visit to Australia.

"If the apology happens, all the better," he said, "but I would not anticipate that the Holy Father would give an apology."

The Pope certainly should apologise but, as The Age noted last week, any apology now will have a hollow ring. That was evident after Cardinal Pell's difficulties, but is even more so now after Bishop Fisher's comments. Pope Benedict will, no doubt, be personally sincere in any apology he might make. But the measure of an apology's worth is the change that ensues from it, and when people like Bishop Fisher continue to speak dismissively about abuse victims and their families, there seems scant prospect that the church's handling of the sexual-abuse crisis is changing for the better.

Father Lombardi has said that the Pope is "informed" on the sexual abuse issue but "respects very much the competence of the church in different lands". If the pontiff studies the recent remarks of Cardinal Pell and Bishop Fisher, he will see just what that competence is.