Abuse victims reconciliation a work in progress


Papal Apology - The Sun-HeraldIt's hard to think of anybody who would not have welcomed Pope Benedict's apology for sexual abuse, when he delivered it in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on Saturday morning. By contrast, nobody could have been justifiably pleased to hear an exasperated Bishop Anthony Fisher refer on Wednesday to those 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds'.

Yet in a way, Bishop Fisher's comment was as fortuitous as it was unwittingly honest. It reminded us that reconciliation with victims and their families is still very much a work in progress. It revealed where we're up to. It might be far short of where many would like it to be, but at least he came clean, in a manner of speaking. Together with Pope Benedict's words of apology, Bishop Fisher's unpremeditated comment has provided a starting point from which we can move forward.

The next stage is set out in the current issue of the New York Catholic Worker newspaper, where managing editor Matt Vogel has a commentary on the Pope's recent apology to abuse victims in the USA. Vogel points to honesty, and then examination of conscience, on the part of bishops, as the precondition for reconciliation.

Putting forward the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an appropriate lens through which to understand how to move ahead with the kind of work for reconciliation called for by the Pope, he says:

A crucial part of any Christian response must be forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, ignoring or wiping away the past as though it didn't happen. On the contrary, forgiveness requires naming and remembering that which is to be forgiven so as to be able to be reconciled.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did just that during his apology to the Stolen Generations in February when he specified the 'laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians'.

He probably did not realise it, but he was following the principles that underlie the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when he said:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

Indigenous Australians had turned their backs on an exasperated John Howard. It was his successor Kevin Rudd who took the great leap forward. For the Church, the 'great leap forward' is yet to be taken. But the starting point is now clear.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: crankily, abuse, sex abuse, Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Anthony Fisher



submit a comment

Existing comments

The week started with Pope Benedict paying tribute to the Australian Parliament for the “courageous decision to acknowledge the injustices committed against the indigenous peoples in the past”. It ended with him making his own courageous decision to say sorry for the pain and suffering endured by the victims of sexual abuse in the church. His apology was heartfelt and included a clear directive to the local church to extend compassion, care and justice to the victims.

In the US three months ago, the Pope was able to meet with victims accompanied by local church leaders. That did not happen in Sydney. Perhaps that was because we in Australia still have work to do in building the trust between victims, their representatives and the local church leaders.

Let’s hope the Pope’s genuine compassion and firm direction helps build that trust needed for healing and reconciliation.

Frank Brennan SJ | 21 July 2008  

What wonderful news that Pope Benedict has celebrated mass with abuse victims and Cardinal Pell before departing our shores. And to think that the first reading in today’s mass is Micah’s injunction that the Lord asks only that we act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God. Bon voyage, Il Papa! Let’s hope for greater trust and healing here in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit.

Frank Brennan SJ | 21 July 2008  


ABC radio has reported that the Vatican this morning anniunced that Pope Benedict met with 3 victims of clergy sexual abuse in St Mary's cathedral in Sydney, offering a Mass for them and listening to their stories.

One can but desperately hope that one of the Foster parents was among those 3 people.

One would also like to hear how the choices were made.

Brian Haill | 21 July 2008  

Sorry, but for me the words of George Pell and especially Anthony Fisher demonstrate that the church hierarchy still doesn't get it. They still see each case of abuse as an unfortunate anomaly rather than part of the inevitable result of the frustrations of celibacy and the power of the priestly role.

Until the Church confronts the systemic roots of abuse its attempts to apologise and reconcile will remain hollow and, for those most damaged, offensive.

Warwick | 21 July 2008  

This propaganda exercise was about taking the church back to Pre-Vatican 2. It was about the re-assertion of male hierarchial control.
The whole exercise reminded me of the 1950's.Note all the nuns in traditional habits and the use of latin during the Mass. The Pope described Mary as the representative of humanity, Where were the Marys on stage at the Papal Mass?

Deirdre Cooke | 21 July 2008  

Thank you Michael, for an insightful and honest comment. I believe that the last two sentences of the article most urgently capture the desire of the heart of most ordinary Catholics. For those bishops who haven't yet really heard the breadth, the depth and relentlessness of ongoing suffering of this nature, and the compassion of their fellow believers, with Michael Mullins and those ordinary Catholics I would like to affirm the time to act is NOW!

Moira Sheedy | 21 July 2008  

Thanks for your commentary Michael it is always useful to have a reasoned point of view. A message for Bishop Fisher and others that abuse doesn't disappear with an apology it has lifelong effects that are destructive and cause the victim untold distress.
I have yet to hear that sexual abuse is a CRIMINAL offense and ought to be treated as such.

Rosemary Keenan | 21 July 2008  

As a child, I attended a school in which physical and sexual abuse of children was a commonplace. Children were beaten on the merest pretext; talking in a line, having scuffed shoes, or being late for a class.

The principal of the college, a Christian Brother, was convicted in 2004 of the sexual abuse of a number of children in his care in the 1960s and 1970s. He received a suspended sentence because of his age and infirmity. His victims received no such mercy.

Nowadays I spend part of each year in Ireland as a Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College in Dublin. I have witnessed at close hand the effect that the revelations of clerical abuse have had on that most Catholic of countries.

The Irish have historically had a robust perspective on their faith. They have been able to maintain both a critical and affectionate regard for the clergy. This is a thing of the past. Catholicism is discredited and the anger in the community is palpable; more as a consequence of the cover-ups and obfuscation that has taken place.

The experiences of victims in this country are not dissimilar. Apologies are partial and evasive. They acknowledge the harms of the perpetrator but not of the system that allowed abuse. Financial recompense is meager and dismissive of the harms done.

Apologies without substantive reforms are hollow. Fundamental structural reform of the Church is required if those who hold deeply to the Catholic faith are to have any confidence in the formal organisation that represents their beliefs.

Dr Tom Keating, Director, Tom Keating & Associates, Health and Community Services Consultants

Tom Keating | 21 July 2008  

Welcome thought it was, how astonishing it was that the Pope should have left it to the very last minute to meet and personally apologise to victims of clergy sexual abuse. Astonishing not only because it was a very secretive affair but also because the Pope had made a key point of signalling a sexual abuse apology even when his plane was still on the ground in Rome last week. It should have been the Pope's first act, not his last ... nor one tucked away in a side chapel of St Mary's cathedral.

Some would read a great irony in the news that the four victims who met the Pope were chosen by the self-styled "Professional Standards Office" of the Sydney archdiocese, a confirmation that the hierarchy will continue its grip on the workings of its discredited "Towards Healing" program, a program that should now properly be headed towards oblivion ... with true outsiders determining compensation rates ... very different from Cardinal Pell's one size fits all chart.

Hopefully Bishop Fisher might be reflecting on some old wounds himself this week ... those of the crucified Christ ... which remain new ... and, as we have seen, are constantly renewed.

Brian Haill | 21 July 2008  

It is a pity that the words of Anthony Fisher were so negative and lacking in any sense of compassion or empathy for the victims of sexual abuse. Danny Casey's explanation and defence of Fisher were just as bad. These are 'crimes against the person' that people do not 'get over' easily.

At the same time, while the operation of the 'Towards Healing' process is under the direction to some extent of the individual Bishop (except for Melbourne where some other system operates for better or worse), it is the best system we have and contrary to some people's understanding has no cap on compensation which must be arrived at through a prcess of facilitated agreement.

It also makes it plain to complainants that they have a right to go to the police and through the courts, in which case the Church process is suspended until after the legal processes are completed.

It is up to the rest of the Catholic community to hold their Bishops to account on these publicly espoused processes. If we speak long and loud about this accountability and refuse to support them with donations until they do, they might eventually listen and learn.

Shane Wood | 21 July 2008  

We are all here in Australia, not New York. As far as Bishop Fisher is concerned, his comments were, (and are), inexcusable.

folkie | 21 July 2008  

I found it significant that Benedict had as teacher gathered the religious around him as he made his apology. Hopefully his compassionate leadership will be followed by practical action. The hurt goes much deeper than the obvious victims, the betrayal applies to every Catholic in a parish – in some cases many parishes throughout a diocese - in schools every student and innocent teacher.

Responses to the problem have usually been human, political and ‘male’ in characteristics and emphasize the need to find the complimentary balances of ‘female’, humility and trust in the Lord by his people. It may be this healing must happen before religious vocations can flow again.

Margaret McDonald | 21 July 2008  

Tom Keating is right when he says that 'apologies without substantive reforms are hollow' and that what is needed is 'fundamental structural reform of the Church'.

Have you noticed how the apologies that have been given by our bishops are all about the actions of those at the bottom of the hierarchical heap - the unfortunate parish priests and brothers. There have never been any apologies for the actions and inactions of the hierarchy itself.

In one sense, one can see the errant priests and brothers as victims of their own passions and the system in which they are required to work. But the decisions made by bishops - to cover up, to sweep abuse under the carpet, and to refuse to confront the systemic causes of the abuse - were made deliberately and after careful consideration.

I'll believe that the church hierarchy is serious when George Pell and Anthony Fisher and Benedict XVI are prepared to apologise for their own mismanagement of the system and then to do something fundamental to fix it.

The major threat to all that is good and beautiful in Catholicism is not the spread of secularism, but the attitude of its own hierarchy. It's the hierarchy, not the faith, that attracts the anger and disdain of non-believers.

Warwick | 21 July 2008  

I must admit on hearing Bishop Anthony Fisher's words about 'dwelling crankily ... on old wounds' horrified me. I question the need to rationalise those words and excuse them as exasperation by Bishop Fisher/clergy with the issues associated with victims of sexual abuse.

Those words as heard by victims of abuse, those who may have spent lifetimes of suffering through abuses done in their childhood, should surely be the more exasperated in this situation. I don't think abuse is 'of old wounds' it can be for some a continuing wound lived very much through to the present.

If people are going to comment publicly on national television on abuse by the Church could they at least do so in the spirit of the apology by the Pope. With an attitude of understanding about the serious breach of trust, violence and victimisation. In an attitude of openness to listening to those affected and compassion for those carrying their Cross from such abuse.

I agree with Michael Mullins saying that those words perhaps indicate where we are up to in 'this a work in progress'. I just hoped that we would be well past the starting line that these fortuitous words are seemingly chasing.

Sue McGovern | 22 July 2008  

I wonder when someone is going to apologise to the tens of thousands of innocent human beings locked up in Woomera and other places as "illegals".

I have to confess that without the likes of Frank (howdy old friend, who is actually younger than me), Father Celso, Father Greg O'Kelly, Jim Monaghan and many nuns and sisters their plight would have stayed ignored.

Who says sorry to the Bakhtiyari kids for example for being monstered over 4 years before their illegal deportation by men who claim to be christians.

Marilyn | 22 July 2008  

Re the private Mass of the Pope with 4 victims of clergy sexual abuse (no including the Fosters): I would like to paint an alternative scenario: A gathering at the Sydney’s huge St Mary’s cathedral to which are invited all those who suffered or are affected by sexual abuse by clergy, religious and others with a duty of care within the Church, together with the four hundred plus bishops and cardinals, and the pope as at the World Youth Day Mass. During the liturgy, the members of the hierarchy take off their mitres and Episcopal insignias and recite together the Confiteor to the assembled people; then they move among the assembled crowd, personally listening to, speaking with, asking forgiveness of them on behalf of the Church. The liturgy would also include a commitment on the part of the Church Leadership to do all in their power to prevent such abuse and to care for victims when it does occur.
In such a liturgy, I believe people would experience Jesus walking among them. I pray for the Church’s leaders that they may have the courage to make something of this vision a reality. I hope I live to see the day.

Corrie van den Bosch | 22 July 2008  

My family, extended family and many friends have experienced abuse by catholic clergy. As I grow older, more and more people share their horrendous stories with me. I am overwhelmed. I sometimes wonder who is not a perpetrator in the church. Or who is not aware of those who are. We are all wounded when abuse occurs. These wounds are passed from generation to generation.

Tom Keating is right when he says that 'apologies without substantive reforms are hollow' and that what is needed is 'fundamental structural reform of the Church'.

jo dallimore | 22 July 2008  

I particularly empathise with your point about remembering being an essential element of forgiveness. This is so often overlooked. To remember is the path to positive and healing growth.

Judith Woodward | 23 July 2008  

The Pope might re-establish any credibility for the Catholic Church in the eyes of millions if he were to demand from bishops all over the world that they "open their records" of all offenders. A bishop has no right to hide a criminal. One who does is just as bad as the offender.

I speak from experience. I was one of many terrorised by one of the brothers at CBC St Kilda back in 1945. After 60 odd years I'm still hurting. It's a pain that never goes away. That brother was transferred and I never heard what happened afterwards.

I left Australia in 1954. Canada has been my home for most of my life. Here, there is at least some justice. The Christian Brothers were drummed out of the country and their property confiscated after all the abuse was revealed in Newfoundland.

Philip Smithwick | 24 July 2008  

Pope Benedict’s apology was heartfelt and included a clear directive to the local church to extend compassion, care and justice to the victims. Thankfully it is reported today that Cardinal Pell has now apologised to Mr Jones writing: "I do apologise to you for my (2003) letter … which was poorly drafted and, I regret, open to interpretations which I did not intend".

Bishop Fisher apologised for his remarks about persons "dwelling crankily on old wounds" on the Sunday evening after Benedict made his apology. The papal apology would have been heard more clearly if the local bishops had first apologised for their unfortunate remarks and admitted mistakes.

Let’s hope the local Church can follow the papal lead and get things right more promptly in future.

Frank Brennan SJ | 13 August 2008  

Similar Articles

Singapore's cane can't restore justice

  • Michael Mullins
  • 28 July 2008

If Singapore's courts convict ABC journalist Peter Lloyd of drug charges, his sentence may include 15 lashes. In a better world, 'restorative justice' would allow him to do something positive to counter the social ills that led to his actions.


Abuse comments fuel sectarian prejudice

  • Irfan Yusuf
  • 25 July 2008

Sheik Hilaly compared rape victims to 'uncovered meat'. Bishop Anthony Fisher stated parents of abuse victims were 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. Unequal criticism of the remarks suggests sexual assault has been appropriated as a cultural or sectarian wedge.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up