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Pilgrims walk with shadow of Church abuse


Shadows cast by pilgrims on the Camino MozárabeI grew up in outback WA, where there was no church, or neighbour, within easy driving distance. Stories were what we had, and they were sacred.

Some were poems — 'The Owl and the Pussycat' may be responsible for my wanderlust, forever seeking that land of bong-trees. Some were from the Yamiji people — they instilled reverence for this land over which we stomp. Some were Bible stories — angels, miracles, water to wine and dead men walking. Those stories helped form my wish to live an honourable life. To 'do unto others'.

Later, at convent school, while I resented not being allowed to serve on the altar, I did love the rituals and the rosary's mantra. I also loved one Q and A from catechism:

Q: What is God?
A: God is love.

As I grew, I reassessed. My mother insisted I make my own choices on morality, faith and ethics. I was not to parrot inherited stances, but to form opinions based on experience and listening.

I've always had a pull toward the numinous, and felt a wish to serve, but through my teen years discord grew between those yearnings and the Catholic Church. It said it welcomed everyone equally, and yet treated me differently to my brother. Why, I wondered, were women not able to be priests, or take leadership positions in Catholic hierarchy? Why were gay friends not welcomed fully? Why was it that men who wanted to serve as priests couldn't have partners or families if they wished?

So much seemed punishing. Unequal.

By my 20s, I felt that my moral framework made it impossible for me to align myself with the Church of my childhood. Ironic, when that framework had been, in part, formed by Catholicism.

Fast forward to 2010 when I hear a call. 'Walk with sin!'

The premise of my book Sinning Across Spain is that in medieval times, a pilgrim could be paid to carry the sins of another to a holy place, and on arriving, the stay-at-home would receive absolution.

That may sound like hocus-pocus. But it was also a call for empathy, for shouldering the burdens of others, and for re-examining my beliefs. I asked people to donate sins. They did, and I walked with them.

One sin I carried was anger. I met it many times during that 1300km slog, in myself mostly. The most potent occasion was in company with a Spanish man. He was walking in memory of his brother, who had suicided some years earlier. We'd already discussed whether that suicide might be a sin, but I hadn't known the circumstances leading to it. One day, my amigo turned to me. He asked me to tell him the sins I carried, and I said I couldn't.

'But I don't know these people,' he said.

'I made a promise,' I said. Una promesa.

We walked on, picking fennel-tops to chew and rosemary to sniff.

He said there was something he had never told anyone, and proceeded to describe events from decades earlier. I listened, but could make no sense. His casual tone didn't fit the words I was translating. I asked him to repeat. Questioned him.


Yes, eight.

Every night?

Yes, every night.

I had to ask him to show me what he meant, my brain was so unwilling to process the story. Finally, watching the mime I'd requested, I could no longer deny what I was hearing. Under an electricity pylon, I sunk to the ground.

A religious man of the cloth had forced his penis into the mouth of my amigo's then eight-year-old brother. Night after night.

His brother told my amigo about it one evening after they had been watching their sons play football. Then he swore my amigo to secrecy in order to protect their parents. Una promesa. It was never spoken of again.

My amigo sat beside me, his citrus scent mixing with the aniseed of fennel, and apologised for speaking of his sin.

'No es tu pecado,' I said. It's not your sin.

'Es mi segreto.' It's my secret.

I pictured that little brother, grown to manhood, and his fears for his sons. I tried to imagine the story my amigo had invented for their parents, and his brother's wife and children. I wondered about the weight of all those lies.

What I remember most is the anger. Like a tsunami.

And I absolutely do not believe that anger was a sin.

How could I not feel angry with the Pope, the bishops, the cover-up, the refusal to take responsibility for those little people, grown large, blaming themselves in stifling silence? And for those who loved them and were helpless to ease the pain? Anger seems a fitting response when hope is killed. Surely the theft of innocence warrants rage?

We're all losing our innocence now, hearing stories that frighten and appal, disgust and repel us. Many — within the Church and also outside it — would prefer to look away, hoping that somehow things can go on as before.

But we can't. We mustn't. My amigo is healthier for telling his brother's story — I know that from his letters — and I'm a bigger human for hearing it.

We must all listen, no matter how painful. Child abuse is epidemic in Australia, and not only within organisations. If we are to look after our children, we must pay attention to them.

Since my book was published, people have told me many abuse stories — of their children, their friends, their parents. One of Victoria's worst offenders was my local parish priest. Neighbours' sons were affected. I can't look away, even when I want to.

But the book also brought me into conversation with many who want the Catholic Church to live up to its original promise — to love one another. The fact that they continue to believe in it is, to me, miraculous.

Belief. I thought I knew the meaning of the word, but a friend explained it to me recently. It comes, he said, from an old English word 'lief', which can be translated as 'love'. Belief, at its heart, is to-be-in-love. Faith, he says, is paying endless loving attention.

If we are to pay such attention, then we must look with an unflinching gaze, and the Church should lead the way, beginning by examining itself. It's time for it to mature, to 'walk its talk'. To acknowledge all people are equal, and to give love to all. Tough love, in respect of itself. Very tough. That may be the most Godlike love.

Ailsa Piper headshotAilsa Piper has worked as a writer, theatre director, teacher, actor, broadcaster and speaker and was co-winner of the inaugural Patrick White Playwright's Award for her theatre script Small Mercies. In 2012 ABC Radio aired Ailsa's episode of Poetica, Bell Shakespeare produced an adaptation of Duchess of Malfi, co-written by her, and her first book, Sinning Across Spain, was published.

This article is adapted from her speech at the launch of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's book For Christ's Sake: End sexual abuse in the Catholic Church ... for good.

Topic tags: Ailsa Piper, Geoffrey Robinson, clergy sex abuse



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Existing comments

As a product of 2 broken marriages of zilch Catholicism [indeed anti RC] ever dumped with relatives,I never "parroted inherited stances",but lovingly embraced the doctrines and dogmas of the church at knees of Holy Mother the Church through loving nuns,brothers and priests. My response to scandals are well echoed in this link http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/abbott/130805

Father John George | 06 August 2013  

Beautifully written Ailsa. I like your writing very much. Child sexual abuse is an unspeakable abomination and, in looking with an unflinching gaze, the Church is showing maturity. I also liked your 1300km walk. I know from my own experience that anger can be carried during a walk, it can be met and it can be transformed.

Pam | 06 August 2013  

My God, this is a beautifully horrid story. Thank you. When we listen, really listen, I think we heal - this is priesthood. Thank you.

Dennis MacDonald | 06 August 2013  

The relationship between the people of God and the bishops will never be the same again. What we are learning now is the practical incompetence of these so called leaders to deal adequately with this abuse scandal. In the immediate future these priests should be very slow to pontificate on anything. Their authority has been irreparably prejudiced. How it can be restored is something only God himself knows. Why is the church voting with its feet on matters such as face to face confession to a cleric? There are several reasons but a significant one is the lack of confidence many of us feel in the ordained clergy and don't feed us the line that the crooks are a minority. The numbers we are seeing in recent weeks are not a majority but they are considerable,

grebo | 06 August 2013  

This article is so true. In the church we put up with lots of 'mild' abuse - being treated like children, trying to take responsibility for the life and prayer of the church in the face of clerical dominance and power. It is accepting this abuse that lays the foundation for those in power to do as they wish without fear of consequences. We must oppose any abuse when it occurs and truly become a church that loves one another.

Jo Ayers | 06 August 2013  

"The relationship between the people of God and the bishops will never be the same again" Grebo that is a vast gratuitous generalisation re circa 4000 global bishops and millions of laity plus future numbers. One USA bishop has been convicted of misdemeanor with none in jail. Even much maligned US Cardinal Law had previously given evidence before two grand juries and been fully investigated by the state attorney general and the five district attorneys in the counties in which the archdiocese operates. When the state attorney general issued his report entitled Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston (July 23, 2003)he did not allege that Law had tried to evade investigation and he did state that Law had not broken any laws [WIKI]

Father John George | 06 August 2013  

My first reaction to this article was that it was beautifully written. Then I read it more carefully analysing why it had such impact. Simplicity - the tool of story-tellers through the century. Then I read for what was not there. Sin yes. Abuse "stories" yes. Anger yes. Loss of innocence yes. Crime. Not there. Not a whisper. "Surely the theft of innocence warrants rage?" Ailsa Piper asks. I ask: Surely sexual molestation of a child is a crime? And who among us will bring the rapist to justice? Who will stand up for the child?

Frank Golding | 06 August 2013  

Ah Ailsa, you are such a beautiful soul and how I enjoy reading your Blog stories. I love my church and I am excited to hear your voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Bless you.

Patricia Taylor | 06 August 2013  

Thank you for this article. Marie.

Marie O'Connor | 06 August 2013  

In context of abuse discussion the following is surely pertinent: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/church-condemns-sex-abuse-inquiry/story-fn59niix-1226692405705

Father John George | 07 August 2013  

I think it is a mistake frequently made, to see anger as sinful. What Ailsa describes is 'righteous indignation' - such as Jesus displayed in ejecting money-changers from the temple. We need that sort of passion to right wrongs.

maxine barry | 08 August 2013  

Spot on Maxine! I agree with church "Righteous Indignation" re Vic sex-abuse inquiry: "THE Catholic Church has accused high-profile critics of its handling of child sex abuse cases of fabricating evidence and parliamentarians of failing to personally investigate crucial facts."[The Australian]

Father John George | 09 August 2013  

Thank you Ailsa for speaking out so strongly and clearly for those who have suffered in silence for far too long.

Sue Murray | 09 August 2013  

Interesting that no one has mentioned your book "Sinning across Spain". I did see it in the library and scanned through it. It seemed wonderfully whimsical. Child molestation is, of course, the exact opposite. I think a bit of it was going on at one or two Catholic boy's boarding schools in Perth at the time you were being educated, Ailsa. It is a sorry story. I must confess, having been educated at a mix of Catholic and Anglican schools here and abroad, I have not, myself, encountered it. Like John George, I was one of the lucky ones. It has happened, not just in Catholic circles, but right across the spectrum of educational and residential institutions. The Anglican Church in Queensland, where I live, has a horrid, sordid story of continuous, across the board abuse going back many years. Its former Archbishop of Brisbane and Governor-General was forced to resign because of a dreadful gaffe he made on national TV about the matter. His successor, Philip Aspinall, has proved exemplary in understanding and caring for victims and implementing strategies to attempt to prevent it. Things have changed. The Church - all Churches - as well as other institutions are on notice. Their future very much depends on it.

Edward F | 12 August 2013  

I live in the Newcastle region where a recent investigation into such priestly pædophilia has seen a policeman Peter FOX's persistence triumph in the face of his fellows and local journalist Joanne McCARTHY win a major award - against the odds of church misbehaviour and less than honest dealings in the court. I am somewhat held in the glare of these matters because of personal experience but I know that the compassion and search for justice for the victims from those mentioned above and from Ailsa's beautifully moving piece here - and from others - helps with the healing. Let the light shine!

Jim KABLE | 13 August 2013  

One notes re priestly pedophilia a common misuse of terminilogy and fact: Vatican official, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who serves as the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the Office of the United Nations, has made the claim that the clerical abuses that rocked the Catholic church and stunned the faithful the world over were not committed by pedophiles, but rather by homosexual "ephebophiles"--men attracted to adolescent boys.[homosexual acts] [This of course does not trivialize the heinous harm to victims either way-but explains the 2005 Vatican instruction to the weed out from seminaries deep seated homosexuals]

Name | 14 August 2013  

oh Ailsa. Such beautiful words to describe something so abhorrent. Can the Catholic church ever lead the way? With all their sleight of hand and denial and blaming the victim? I worked in Catholic education for a while, and the overall arrogance and ignorance is deep seated. I really feel for the believers, and wonder how they reconcile their faith with the facts and the hierarchy. Stay gentle, Ailsa

Bev | 15 August 2013  

Fr Patrick Mugavin of Hamilton, and priests from Warrnambool and Shepparton are undertaking a pilgrimage at the moment on the Camino of St Ignatius of Loyola (1522) in Spain carrying child abuse sins of the Catholic church.

Jan Leishman | 09 September 2013  

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