Friday, July 18, 2008

Catholic bishop's own-goal

The good PR generated for the Catholic Church by the Pope’s visit to Sydney for World Youth Day was partially undone, with spectacular ineptitude, by the comments of Australian Catholic bishop Anthony Fisher.

Questioned this week about the way the Church dealt with two Melbourne sisters who were repeatedly raped as children by their parish priest, Bishop Fisher – who is World Youth Day co-ordinator – complained that lingering controversy over sex abuse was detracting from the Sydney celebrations.

He then went on – and you can imagine the reporters’ jaws dropping at this point – to criticise “a few people” for “dwelling crankily … on old wounds”. Presumably these few cranky people included the parents of Emma and Katherine Foster, both of whom were raped while at primary school by Melbourne priest Kevin O’Donnell.

Emma Foster killed herself six months ago at the age of 26, after years of self-harm and drug-taking that her father blames on her abuse by O’Donnell. The girls’ family negotiated a financial settlement with the Church after a legal battle that lasted eight years.

Fisher seems to take the view that the family should get over it and move on – possibly not the most tactful approach, coming just six months after the Fosters buried one of their daughters. The head of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, didn’t sound terribly sympathetic either when he talked about the help the church had given the Foster family. There was a note of irritation and impatience in his voice, as if he resented having to discuss the subject and apologise all over again (which he did with notable brusqueness).

Interviewed on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, Anthony Foster, the girls’ father, described Fisher’s comments as outrageous. If they were indicative of Church thinking, he said, then there was no hope of compassion for the victims of clerical abuse.

I thought Foster was remarkably restrained in the circumstances. He had married a Catholic, raised his children as Catholics and entrusted them to the Catholic system. The church had betrayed that trust, he said.

Foster claimed O’Donnell, who died in prison, had been moved from parish to parish over a period of 40 years – a pattern also seen in New Zealand, where the Church’s way of dealing with known serial abusers was often simply to shift them.

Bishop Fisher’s outburst suggests to me that the Catholic hierarchy still has a long way to go in dealing with the disgrace of sex abuse, though heaven knows they’ve had plenty of practice.

Often, as in the case of New Zealand priest Alan Woodcock several years ago, the Church has given the impression that it’s more concerned with protecting itself than with exposing and expelling the predators in its ranks. In the meantime not only is the suffering of the victims unnecessarily compounded, but a shadow of suspicion is cast over hundreds of priests who have led exemplary lives and must be sickened by every new case of abuse.

Fisher’s apparent resentment of outside scrutiny is particularly telling. It suggests the Church remains a cloistered, inward-looking institution, still coming to terms with the novel concept of accountability to the wider community, and with no idea how to engage with the secular world outside.

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