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Church needs state help to deal with abuse


Church and StateThese are not easy times for Catholic priests; and they have never been easy times for those children in our society who have been sexually abused, a disproportionate number of them by Catholic priests.

When in Sydney in July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI apologised in these words:

I ... acknowledge the shame which we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy and religious in this country. Indeed, I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured and I assure them that, as their pastor, I too share in their suffering. These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation.

I adopt his apology without demurrer.

Whatever our religion or none, whatever our love or loathing of the Catholic Church, what is to be done in the name of law and justice? Clearly the Church cannot be left alone to get its house in order. That would be a wrongful invocation of freedom of religion in a pluralist, democratic society.

The state may have a role to play. As our elected politicians decide how best to proceed, they need assistance from lawyers committed to justice, not lawyers acting primarily to protect or condemn the Church. The Church in Victoria has admitted that 'in the past 16 years, about 620 cases of criminal child abuse have been upheld by the Church in Victoria'. In the Archdiocese of Melbourne alone, 301 complaints have been upheld since 1996.

Professor Patrick Parkinson, probably the nation's most experienced academic lawyer in the field, having conducted the 2009 Study of Reported Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church and having advised the Catholic Church on its Towards Healing protocol, informed the Victorian Parliament last month:

[T]here were 44 allegations of abuse [since 1990] within the Anglican diocese of Melbourne which fitted within the criteria of our study.

Archbishop Hart [the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne] referred to 60 priests ... of the archdiocese of Melbourne, who are substantiated offenders against children. We found 78 across the country against whom allegations were made in the Anglican Church. It gives you a sense of the scale of the problem.

If the Anglican and Catholic figures are statistically comparable, we all need to know the explanation for the discrepancy. If there be particular problems in the Catholic Church, they need to be identified for the good of all citizens, not just Catholics.

Parkinson says 'we have come a long way ... The reality is that we have come light years on from 1997 ... I think all churches have radically changed their attitudes to all of this.' Speaking of those things which helped to influence the change, he told the Victorian parliamentary committee 'the Wood Royal Commission in New South Wales was very important, and generally an awareness that this was a problem not just for the Catholic Church'.

In 1997 the Wood Royal Commission noted: 'While a good deal of evidence and assistance was provided by the Catholic Church, it is not the case that the Commission finds particular fault with that Church or its constituent bodies. Indeed, its response to the matters disclosed by the Royal Commission is held up as a model for other Churches and religious organisations to follow.'

Recently there have been unresolved questions raised about Catholic Church processes by the ABC Four Corners program. I am one lawyer and dedicated Catholic who is mightily relieved that Tony Whitlam QC has been appointed to inquire into the Church processes in the Armidale case which featured on that program. And it is a relief to know that Frank Vincent QC is assisting the parliamentary inquiry in Victoria.

These two eminent and reputable retired judges will hopefully assist all persons including victims and church members wanting transparency and better processes. Presumably if they think more State resources are needed to accelerate prosecutions for past criminal offences or to enhance procedures for contemporary detection, avoidance and deterrence of child sexual abuse, they will say so, and they will be heard loud and clear.

At the moment, there is little that any Catholic priest can credibly say on this issue in the public square. I make this plea to all lawyers having a commitment to justice:

While putting aside any religious prejudice, please contribute fearlessly to the debate on how religious and other organisations charged by the State with responsibility for the oversight of the care and nurture of children can perform their tasks without undue risk of abuse and with State protection of all children assured.

And please advise how we can better deal with complaints which surface decades later, whether or not the now adult victims want to go to the police.  

Frank Brennan headshotFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law, director of strategic research projects (social justice and ethics), Australian Catholic University, adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University, and a board member of St Vincent's Health Australia. 

This is an extract from his Law and Justice Oration delivered in Parliament House, Sydney, last night. Full text

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, clergy sex abuse, parliamentary inquiry



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Existing comments

I am not sure the extent of sexual abuse of minors under the age of 18, but I have heard that most of it is committed by a relative and some of it is committed by people, usually men, who are either, clergy, teachers or lawyers. I believe that most groups such as families, the Church, the Legal and Teaching professions who fail to report and lay charges is embarrassment and shame. I believe that the cause of some clergy committing this crime is the policy of celibacy and the lack of intimate adult relationships, including sex, in the priesthood. The Church has an irrational and illogical policy that the only reason for people to have sex is for procreation. There are two other reasons for having sex which are personal enjoyment and an expression of love in an intimate relationship.

Mark Doyle | 01 November 2012  

I'm aware of the strong measures implemented in the Sydney Anglican diocese regarding sexual abuse. And I think the Catholic Church is moving in the right direction. Supporting independent enquiries is a logical step. Also, the apology by the Pope is an acknowledgement of the impact on the Church. For victims to accept this apology "without demurrer" would be a further step towards healing. But some victims may never reach that point. The damage done to victims will remain - long after enquiries are completed, heartfelt apologies extended and new protections put in place. How the Church perceives victims, how the Church speaks to victims, how the Church ministers to victims - these issues all need to be the subject of much research and thoughtful implementation. The Church would need 'the State's' help on that one.

Pam | 01 November 2012  

Frank I agree with you there does need to be open dialogue and input from the legal profession. My experience of involvement in the Redress program in Western Australia tells me that the dialogue needs to be much wider. As a counsellor I was involved in helping victims of abuse tell and record their stories. In another agency the lawyers were taking down the stories. Our skill sets were very different and I became aware of how the more legal approach was often failng to support the victims as they revisited the past. The counsellors appeared to focus on healing and the lawyers on the crime. I don't pretend to know the answers only that the way forward is multifaceted with dialogue required way beyond mere law.

john | 01 November 2012  

Mr Doyle re your "I am not sure the extent of sexual abuse of minors under the age of 18": the USA Shakeshaft Report on child abuse in US concluded 4.5 million [yes million] children were sexually molested over 5 decades by 10 per cent of school officials.

father john george | 02 November 2012  

Why on earth was this clarion call by a highly regarded priest/professor of law not made resoundingly by him many, many years ago? And why, even at this late hour, is the word hierarchy so glaringly absent? When the reference is made that "The State may have a role to play", clearly, plainly, obviously it does and it must and, hand in hand with that recognition and acceptance, the role of the hierarchy has to be robustly -along with the consideration of penalty which has to be addressed. Equally, the question of financial 'compensation' has to be wrested from the church's grasp: it is not for the offender to set the financial penalty nor even to seek to describe it as compo! Somewhere along this appalling track, the vast gulf difference between the church's precept and practice has to be acknowledged.The two words are not interchangeable.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 02 November 2012  

The wise Richard Rohr suggests that it is impossible for the leaders & therefore architects of any dysfunctional society (he exampled his own nation under George W Bush )are incapable of curing the problems . So our beloved Church needs some serious resignations ,from the top down .The shamed Irish Bishops did so yet were refused by Ratzinger . The only Australian Bishop who declared a strong & suitable approach to the issue in his diocese was duly set up on trumped charges & dismissed . Bishop Bill Morris fearlessly declared he would support such victims in whatever way necessary ,even if it required the liquidation of Church assets to fund such action .He was subsequently asassinated was he not ? Let us suggest he should be re-instated & in fact appointed to direct the long overdue healing process by the Church .

john Kersh | 02 November 2012  

John I couldn't agree more. Having been employed to provide ongoing Pastoral support (which included referrals for Counselling) to many victims and their families over a five year period in our Diocese, I have seen the value of taking time to walk with them, listen and learn from these wounded ones. I believe this is much more healing than any monetary settlement (which they justly deserve) will ever be.

MARG | 02 November 2012  

The state needs assist here, prosecuting and jailing those who committed what Frank Brennan reduces to merely, "These misdeeds", and also the entire hieirarchy who covered it up, which includes those in authority within these corrupt organisations. But wait a moment! The state already feeds these organisations by subcontracting government work to them, with billions of dollars of taxpayer monies. Plus, no tax or rates are paid. Frank Brennan may adopt these empty words of the Pope but I do not, having seen no hint of change forthcoming. These crimes were not 'misdeeds'. In lay terms they were crimes, nothing less. I see the first cases of 'school chaplain' sex crimes is appearing in the press. This is another area of significant access to young children, with no hint of learning from the past 'misdeeds' when so-called 'religious' people are let loose unsupervised (except by God?).

janice wallace | 02 November 2012  

As well as determining who abused whom, there is a need to understand why so many clergy have succumbed to these temptations, and to remedy the conditions that foster them. There are parallels with stories told of soldiers who have become isolated from their command, particularly if the command structure has collapsed ,and their ‘cause’ has crumbled. Many such disoriented soldiers are found to revert to using their power to abuse and exploit anyone who crosses their pass. There are two sides of Christianity and all other established religions. There are the timeless spiritual ideals of universal love, and there are the man-made structures of ‘traditions’ and ‘authorities’ fabricated to promote the ideals. The Ideals are constant and eternal, but the man-made structures need to evolve to accommodate new situations and understandings of their position. If this evolution is frustrated, even for seemingly good reasons, the structures become dysfunctional, and the executors of the ideals become isolated and disorientated, and regress to basic instincts. Pope John XXIII's aggiornamento urgently needs implementation.

Robert Liddy | 02 November 2012  

Frank thanks, I suppose better late than never. Can the church remedy its own systemic disorder that recently Archbishop Mark Coleridge wrote, “After 36 years in the Catholic ministry it took ‘people like me a tragically long time’ to see the faces and hear the voices of sexual abuse survivors in the church”? There is widespread dismay that this disorder needs addressing in the church by outsiders to the church as it deeply affects the victims and all Catholics and has led to 90% of the pilgrim people of God opting out of the sacramental life and which casts a pall over every priest of integrity. As Marie Keenan writes in Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church Oxford University Press 2012 there have been errors of judgment in high paces from JP2 to B16 and CDF and in the spirit of Catherine of Sienna I speak openly and critically of these as has Ireland’s President Mary McAleese and Prime Minister Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The Catholic Church in Victoria’s submission is like an undergraduate paper and seeks to cover much and reveal little. It acknowledges ‘in the past 16 years, the complaints of about 620 victims of criminal child abuse have been upheld by the Church in Victoria’. (Page 3). The Victoria Police submission and the appearance of Assistant Police Commissioner Graham Ashton laments the non-cooperation of the Church with not a single victim reported to the police as is required by law; and when the investigating police officer reports 40 suicides among the victims and the Commissioner advises the Parliamentary Commission these are now before the coroner to consider reopening, it gives reasons to ponder on this systemic disorder. It is in the face of these revelations I wonder that the law of vicarious liability has not been enforced. With the Parliamentary Inquiry and groups such as the Commission of Inquiry (COIN), In Good Faith and Associates, the Melbourne Victims Collective, for the innocent and Broken Rites have a rare opportunity to correct this systemic disorder as Facing the Truth begins by quoting Cardinal Newman, ?“Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not... We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.”

Mike Parer | 02 November 2012  

The Pope apologised for 'sexual abuse' and 'misdeeds'. He did not apologise for rape and crimes. He did not apologise for the cover-ups. He did not apologise for his employees putting the reputation of the church first, concern for the perpetrator second and the well-being of the victim last. Mike Parer draws attention to the evidence of the Victoria's Assistant Police Commissioner Graham Ashton that, notwithstanding the church finding over 600 criminal allegations against clergy, they did not refer a single case to the police in 16 years. As Commissioner Ashton pointed out, as things stand: If a stranger entered church property and raped a child, the police would be called immediately and the full force of the law would be applied to the crime; but if a priest raped a child on church property, the police would be the last to be informed (if ever). I'm not one for simple solutions to complex problems, but applying criminal law provisions to clergy with no exceptions would make a powerful impact.

Frank Golding | 02 November 2012  

How much of the response by various Catholic authorities in Asutralia has been shaped or curtailed by directives from Rome?

Anne M | 02 November 2012  

You may not have a lawyer at the moment, but you certainly have a politician.
David Shoebridge has had the most even handed spirit so far that has taken a running jump with all this.
Another thing, it's not just the abuse, it's the personal attacks on those who dare to stand up to the staus quo.
Confidential files not exempt, a tool to discredit if becoming too hot in the kitchen.

L Newington | 02 November 2012  

The horrific suffering of victims is no license to trivialise recent Popes on abuse issue
Upon election of JP2 and with CDF Cardinal Ratzinger clerical abuse plummeted in the CHurch. Nor am I impressed with Vic Parliamentary Inquiry's Professor Cahill [SMH Oct 22] "matching'
Melbourne 5% clergy abuse with clergy abuse among USA 105000 priests [when there are only 41000 priests in USA] and I note, other statistics at variance with the professor's optic:
according to a survey by the Washington Post, over the last four decades, less than 1.5 percent of the estimated 60,000 or more men who have served in the Catholic clergy have been accused of child sexual abuse. According to a survey by the New York Times, 1.8 percent of all priests ordained from 1950 to 2001 have been accused of child sexual abuse.. Thomas Kane, author of Priests are People too, estimates that between 1 and 1.5 percent of priests have had charges made against them. Of contemporary priests, the Associated Press found that approximately two-thirds of 1 percent of priests have charges pending against them.
to draw 'matching comparisons' of Melbourne clergy abuse with USA is absurd! The Shakeshaft Report [blackballed by media] points to 4.5 million[yes million] children molested in USA Public Schools.

father john george | 02 November 2012  

Mark, I think you might misunderstand Catholic teaching on sex. Procreation is not the only reason for sexual intercourse. The catechism specifically highlights its unitive function.

MBG | 02 November 2012  

All churches must look to their attitudes to spirituality and the health of the whole person. At the back of our culture is a prudery and pietism that is dualist and has a low view of our physical being - that the body is worthless anyway and any abuse of the body will not effect the Soul

john ozanne | 02 November 2012  

As a young man I spent one year as a novice in a religous order. There were two directives given us which may relate to Father Frank's topic. The first was: "avoid special friendships among your fellow novices". I can't quote the second one exactly, but I'll try to express its meaning as follows.....when a brother in religion falls, gather around support, and protect him.There was no direct reference, in either of these two admonitons, to inaapropriate sexual relationships but the undertone was there.
Could it be that the "particular problems" of which Frank speaks can be laid at the feet of the vow of "chastity"?

Claude Rigney | 02 November 2012  

Thank you Frank Brennan for your commonsense and sense of justice.Hopefully the governments will take notice of your advice on this matter os sexual abuse.

Bev Smith | 02 November 2012  

I too thank Father Brennan for this paper on the scourge of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church,while these crimes are rampant in society and commonly found in families it is an absolute tragedy that the most trusted people in our church, our priests have been guilty of such serious breeches of trust. This is so distressing to all Catholics and to those priests who are blameless and also feel under a cloud of suspicion. The victims and their families cannot be blamed if they loose all faith and trust in the church. It seems to me that the church cannot expect to carry on "business as usual", without reconciliation and healing.From my knowledge of Catholic friends this is one of the main reasons so many of them no longer identify as Catholics. I would support a Royal Commission. The Church should not investigate itself,and has not had a very successful track record to date. I think the church has lost moral authority and now lacks credability. Margaret M.Coffey

Margaret M.Coffey | 02 November 2012  

Justice and law are central concerns for society, but is justice a virtue of God? The scourge of children robbed of their childhood innocence demands repentance and restitution from those in the Church who masked and aided the perpetrators of crime by avoiding accountability. But is justice only concerned with imposing moral order? Surely the theme behind the application of justice is rehabilitation therefore lip-service in the form of an apology is not taking responsibility for grievous harm done to the most vulnerable in society. The pope’s apology is a start but the Church is a flawed system in which men who claim to represent Christ seem to lack a genuine longing for change. They thrive in a culture of sin, forgiveness and repentance which is fertile ground for moral wrong-doing. What the Church values most (its identity and status) is in direct opposition to the heavenly values taught by Jesus in the gospels. The notion that they serve a tradition and a divine command from Jesus needs to change in favour of an ethical way of life in which individual accountability is a premium virtue. This is not to argue that internal transformation is more important than action for justice.
Rowan Williams recently gave an address to the Catholic bishops in Rome in which he suggested changes for the new evangelization for the Transmission of Christian Faith. He suggested that the church treats the gifts of God as yet another set of things acquired to give them dominance over other people. Can this sense of power be so dominant that the pope and bishops have lost sight of the fragility of young human beings? Rowan Williams stressed the importance of making space for truth, for God’s reality to come through, otherwise our search for justice becomes another exercise of human will, undermined by human self-deception. True justice is concerned with liberating in others the humanity that has been stolen by those who are concerned with self preservation and identity.

Trish Martin | 03 November 2012  

I appreciate comments made by Frank and the feedback which followed, although I regretted the lack of a South Australian response, from the only State where naming of an alleged perpetrator in an Australian parliament has occurred.
What would be of interest is some research relating to child abuse upon the faithful's confidence in their Church.
I recall a happening I witnessed at mass one Sunday. After the parish priest had read the Bishop's epistle about sexual abuse in the diocese, he was openly challenged by a female parishioner. She was later supported by two male members in different parts of the congregation. They all felt that the letter was condoning a church cover up.
The priest paused and spoke gently to each, asking if they felt let down by the Church's response to child abuse in the letter and in the wider community. They insisted that the official response that he had read was a cover up. His gentle but probing questioning won general approval.
"How do you think I feel? I've given my whole life to the Church!"

Gerald O'Callaghan | 03 November 2012  

I appreciate comments made by Frank and the feedback which followed, although I regretted the lack of a South Australian response, from the only State where naming of an alleged perpetrator in an Australian parliament has occurred.
What would be of interest is some research relating to child abuse upon the faithful's confidence in their Church.
I recall a happening I witnessed at mass one Sunday. After the parish priest had read the Bishop's epistle about sexual abuse in the diocese, he was openly challenged by a female parishioner. She was later supported by two male members in different parts of the congregation. They all felt that the letter was condoning a church cover up.
The priest paused and spoke gently to each, asking if they felt let down by the Church's response to child abuse in the letter and in the wider community. They insisted that the official response that he had read was a cover up. His gentle but probing questioning won general approval.
"How do you think I feel? I've given my whole life to the Church!"

Gerald O'Callaghan | 03 November 2012  

Maybe the members of the Catholic clergy good lead by example and cooperate in full with both the Police and Legal system instead of hiding behind smoke screens designed to protect the corporate image of the Catholic church. Comments from the recent Victorian Commission of enquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic reflects poorly on the institutionalised lack of cooperation by church members.

marcelcampbell | 03 November 2012  

Father John George, I heard a priest naively say once,'It is actually not written anywhere, priests are not permitted to engage in any form of sexual activity with children'. As a layperson- I obviously don't know to which official documents or teachings, known only to those in religious orders, he was referring to. Though , perhaps it is high time these be rewritten.

Myra | 06 November 2012  

Re Frank's comment, "the state may have a role to play", here in South Australia the state itself is in possibly greater disarray than most organisations, in responding to sexual abuse of children and young people in its care. Perhaps it's more the case that both church and state need to work together, learning from each other, and supporting and challenging each other, till we get this right.

Jim Monaghan | 06 November 2012  

Myra if said priest referred to 'unwritten source' then why seek for 'written sources' to support his evil assertion?

father john george | 07 November 2012  

Fr John George, I see your point... For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.(John 1:17)

Myra | 07 November 2012  

I welcome Benedict's apology in 2008 as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn't go far enough. For many people, both within and without the Church, the real problem, which the Church has so far failed to address, let alone apologise for, is the cover-up by the bishops and others in authority, and the silence of those others who, while not in positions of authority, knew and chose to remain silent.

Frank says, 'there is little that any Catholic priest can credibly say on this issue in the public square'. May I suggest that there is nothing that any of the hierarchy can credibly say until they accept that they are just as subject to the law of the land as any other organisation.

Ginger Meggs | 08 November 2012  

May I add Ginger? 1 Priest[ Mons Lynn]has been convicted in USA for cover up, hardly your phalanx of those deserving to be hung, drawn, and quartered even if not bishops! In Australia 1 Alleged 'cover up priest' died before chance to plead innocence in a court of law.

father john george | 08 November 2012  

What do you have to say on the recent status quo, by Detective Chief, Peter Fox? FJG.

As I mentioned elswhere, senior Australian clergy are on record criticising the hierarchy, including John Paul 11 of covering up abuse, irrespective of the numbers, and comparisons from else where, in the Australian News, from whence the article came. April 15 1996.

L Newington | 09 November 2012  

I'm well aware, Father George, of the number of limited number, to date, of convictions that have been gained and charges that have been laid for 'cover-ups'and also that the police have attested to the difficulty of gaining evidence. But neither Frank nor I was talking about that. Rather, both Frank and I were talking about credibility 'in the public square'. Frank said that 'there is little that any Catholic priest can credibly say', I said that 'there is nothing that the hierarchy can credibly say'. Do you really expect those inside the church, let alone those outside 'in the public square', to believe that nobody in the hierarchy knew about these matters, or that those who knew did not fail to report them to civil authorities? Or that other otherwise innocent priests and brothers had no idea of what was going on, or that of those who did know, none remained silent? It is unfortunate and regrettable that all priests and religious including the genuinely innocent are being tarred with the same brush, but that is inevitable so long as the cover-ups continue.

Ginger Meggs | 09 November 2012  

Since Mr Meggs has constructed a gratuitous myth re perceived 'credibilities', without rigorous scientific demographic surveys, versus Dorothy Dix phone in votes,I can retort that hierarchical,sacerdotal credibility is enhanced by Australians no humbug perception that no Aussie priest or bishop has been convicted and sentenced to Long Bay top security or ilk for Cover Up![One sole priest died before facing court on cover up[but sorry Ginge "Innocent till proven guilty"[ The Scholastic axiom stands: 'Contra factum non valet argumentum'="against a fact there is no argument"[I add 'even if fiction has greater currency in trial by fury, and cousin: 'trial by media, with burning crosses on presbytery lawns, surrounded by white hooded jury'. Fortunately KKK tactics are unAustralian except in liberal dissenting ambiance!

father john george | 10 November 2012  

L.Newington no doubt you and others will be delighted to read Bishop Wright's response to Detective Fox Allegations! http://www.mn.catholic.org.au/news-events/press-releases/2012/statement-from-bishop-bill-wright-re-allegations-made-by-peter-fox-in-the-newcastle-herald

father john george | 11 November 2012  

I always appreciate Fr Frank's commentary on any issue but particularly this one. He articulates with a calm and incisive empathy which always leads me to prayer for all concerned in whatever the situation is. I'm sure all catholics want to see the cancer of this abuse destroyed once and for all. But at the same time we catholics need to be mindful of the needs of our parish priests who, week after week, continue in their mission to preach the Good News, with generosity, fortitude and genuine pastoral care for their parishioners. They need our support and encouragement in these turbulent times as do our fellow catholics, some of whom are so traumatised over recent revelations about our Church.

Millie | 20 November 2012  

The sexual abuse of children is a criminal offence and this is something that the hierachy of the church just doesnt get. This problem has festered for decades and has been covered up over and over again.These offenders and those responsible for the cover ups need to be dealt with by the criminal justice departments.Every person has a duty of care to report abuse and the laws of the land need to apply to these perpertrators and any person that has anything to with protecting these persons are just as guilty as the offenders.

Brian Cherrie | 25 November 2012  

Sorry Father George, but you are coming over as very defensive, and to me, not helping the discussion. In heaps of articles there is talk of 'going to the Police' etc about these terrible sexual crimes. The point that has bothered me is that these abuses are against the 'Laws of God' which are far greater than any law of man. Priests are our MORAL teachers via homilies etc, interpreters of the Gospel and therefore I expect more of them. Priests are also human like everyone else, but I am having trouble with the fact that there have been hundreds of cases (eg Victoria alone) that have been covered up. Where is the morality of this by our Bishops and leaders? To me it is immaterial if there have been abuses in another Church, or state school or wherever. I am concerned about my Catholic faith, my religious leaders and their superiors who have been involved for years in these cover ups while preaching to us about love and reconciliation.

Laurie | 03 January 2013  

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