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Abuse comments fuel sectarian prejudice

  • 25 July 2008
When it comes to sensitivity toward victims of sexual abuse and assault, Australian religious leaders could learn a thing or two from Pope Benedict. As could some allegedly conservative commentators and political leaders of all persuasions.

In the past two years, two prominent Australian religious leaders have seemed to cast aspersions on sexual assault victims and their families — former Mufti Sheik Hilaly and Catholic Bishop Anthony Fisher.

Hilaly used a Ramadan address in 2006 to suggest that some women ask to be raped by displaying themselves like 'uncovered meat'. He said this before a few hundred people in a Sydney mosque in Arabic, a language spoken by a minority of Australian Muslims. His remarks only came to general attention once translated into English and reported in the media.

Last Wednesday Fisher, the Australian bishop responsible for organising World Youth Day, responded to questions about the case of two girls repeatedly raped by priest Kevin O'Donnell between 1988 to 1993, when they were primary school students, by saying: 'Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in, the beauty and goodness of these young people (at WDY) ... rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.'

The insensitivity was heightened because one of the girls committed suicide this year, aged 26.

His remarks were made in English during a press conference before local and international media.

The two cases aren't completely parallel. Islam (at least in its majority Sunni manifestation) doesn't have a clerical hierarchy. Imams play roles similar to rabbis — they are jurists authorised to provide authoritative but not binding opinions on sacred law. The role of a mufti is not identical to that of a bishop.

That said, the vast majority of lay Catholics and Muslims have no meaningful role in the selection or removal of clergy, bishops, popes, imams or muftis. Further, the views expressed by Catholic clergy are not necessarily representative of the majority of ordinary Australian Catholics. The same applies to Muslims, many of whom had been openly criticising Hilaly years before his remarks about uncovered meat.

Notwithstanding these differences, it's interesting to compare responses to the two cases. In the case of Hilaly, commentators and politicians of all stripes and faiths vocally condemned the remarks. Yet some couldn't resist using the incident to fight sectarian and cultural battles.

The front page of Sydney tabloid newspaper The Daily