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The burning of a tainted church


Fire at St James' Gardenvale

Two weeks ago one Melbourne church was burned down, and fires were started in two other churches.

The media response to the fires focused on Rachel Griffiths' remark that she was happy to see her former parish church, St James, Gardenvale, in Melbourne, go up in flames because of the predatory behaviour of one of its parish priests. It also speculated whether the fire may have been lit by a victim of abuse.

My own feelings about the destruction of St James were mixed. I was baptised and made my first confession and communion there. I was also an altar server, where I helped with the ritual and experimented in such pyrotechnics as putting gunpowder in the incense and making a blow torch out of the fly spray and candle, so mixing the boyhood dough of piety, responsibility and mischief that might later be baked into a living adult faith. Later I returned to the church to celebrate my first Mass and my mother's and father's funerals, as well as other family events. So the church is a place of remembered blessing.

But more recently at the beginning of celebrations at St James I have felt bound to acknowledge that for some of those present this church would be a holy place, but for others a demonic place. And indeed for me, as for most former parishioners of my own and the next generation, it has become associated irredeemably with a parish priest who preyed on many children and bullied many older women. He redecorated the church in his own style, and devastated many lives in his own way. So the church is a place of remembered blasphemy.

When Rachel Griffiths, my niece, spoke with her customary emotional intelligence, of her satisfaction at seeing the church burn, she echoed my own feelings and those of many of my generation and the next. To feel that way does not imply that we applaud people for burning down churches; nor do we believe it right generally to destroy places where evil things are done. And we sympathise with the present members of the congregation and the parish priest, who had nothing to do with the evil done in the church, in their loss and devastation. But to us St James came to speak most strongly, not of God's love, but of betrayal by one who claimed to represent God. It is a place to avoid.

Many will criticise any expression of satisfaction at the burning of a church on the grounds it will encourage copy cat arson. But would not the suppression of the rage felt by so many members of a community who see the church as the symbol of abuse be more likely to lead to destructive actions?  

The Gardenvale church is not alone in being a locus of clerical abuse of children and of the devastation of the community. Members of other congregations will have known the lasting harm suffered by victims of abuse and their families, the alienation from the church by so many of their friends, their own sense of failure at having failed to notice and act on signs that later seemed patent, and the discomfort of priests and congregations as they tried to rebuild the parish. Business as usual in churches that have been violated engenders unease.

But if not business as usual, then what? A little-used church law may suggest a better way. Canon 1211 allows for a church to be withdrawn temporarily from use after destructive actions that have scandalised Catholics, until the harm is repaired.

It would be helpful if such interruption to the use of a church after the discovery of clerical abuse of children were introduced regularly. It is hard to imagine anything more damaging to the faith of a congregation than the realisation that clergy have used their position to abuse children, and that victims, their families and members of the congregation will continue to suffer the bitter consequences. The church building itself is inevitably seen as tainted by the abusive relationship between priest and parishioners and as needing to be purified.

A break in the use of the church as a place of religious celebration would mark the break in relationships with God and among people caused by the abuse, and the dislocation in the meaning of church. The rituals of repair could then focus on the suffering of the victims of abuse, allow victims to take a leading part in the ritual if they wished, and result in the erection of a monument to record the abuse. As a symbolic action, of course, its force would depend on the evident determination of church leaders to ensure the accountability, transparency and protection that will keep children safe.

The burning of a church offers further possibilities. The bare ruined walls of St James evoke those of the bombed Coventry Cathedral. When the Cathedral was rebuilt the walls, inscribed with the text 'Father forgive', were left as a monument. It would be a bold and noble gesture, exactly measured to the destruction done to the Catholic Church by priests' sexual abuse, to leave the ruined walls of St James as a shrine to the victims, a record of the evil that was done, and a pledge that never again will children be unprotected in the Catholic Church.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Rachael Griffiths, St James Gardenvale, Catholic Church, sexual abuse



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Existing comments

Fire is often seen in the Bible as a symbol of God's presence. And St James is a house of God. That evil was able to flourish there and ruin lives is very disturbing and so I can understand why a response of satisfaction at seeing the building burn could be articulated. I think, though, that rebuilding it would be more appropriate than leaving it as a shrine. I like the words 'Father forgive' and St James could be a place for victims to reflect. And, hopefully, help them on their journey to peace.

Pam | 15 April 2015  

I don’t agree with the sentiment of approving violence to combat violence. Moreover, in this particular case, knowing consecrated hosts may have been destroyed in the fire.

Name | 15 April 2015  

If every church in the Melbourne Archdiocese was to be treated with a "break in the use of the church as a place of religious celebration" then Eucharist would be not available in very many parishes. The further limitations of the current limited number of available ordained priests would constrain liturgies even more. Would all churches where abusers operated be closed simultaneously? How would the Archdiocese function when the Cathedral church was not available? There are more than 40 parishes and even more church premises affected in Melbourne - how many Sunday Masses would be canceled ? I like the idea - that would bring home to the "ever faithful" parishioners how devastating the problems have been.

Jim Boyle | 15 April 2015  

I think Rachel Griffiths' reaction - I read the whole article in the Age- was sane and sensible. She is, unlike so many, still Catholic and apparently one with discernment. Your article, especially the suggested solution to cleanse, resolve and move on from the appalling abuse which occurred at St James is eminently sensible and most apt. Many ghastly things in this country have come to light recently, not just to do with paedophilia and not just to do with the Catholic Church: it is a national thing. I think we need to return as a nation to some sort of decency and honour in our public and private lives. We appear to have lost our innocence.

Edward Fido | 15 April 2015  

I seriously suggest that E S should refrain from publishing comments by anyone who wishes to conceal their identity ,ie Name . It defies belief that someone can put the destruction of an unknown number of consecrated hosts on a par with the violating of many little living seplicures .Someone more learned than I might kindly adjudicate on the validity of the possible thousands of hosts " consecrated" & distributed by the offending priest ? Regards john

john kersh | 16 April 2015  

I am sorry that a building that has such special memories for your faith journey has been tainted by others. I like the idea of the symbol that you propose and realise that you are not condoning violence in this article as the unnamed contributor claims. Sadly though there is far more introspection and direct action that is needed by the Church and by all of us who identify as members of that Church before we can claim that such abuse is a thing of the past. It is not and it continues to flourish while our Church does not address the structures and practices that hide it and allow it to continue.

Carol | 16 April 2015  

Thank you, Andy. I remember seeing a Synagogue in Berlin, restored, but only in part, so that the memory of the murder of Berlin's Jews was honoured in stark physical form. I am not making a comparison between the Holocaust and sexual abuse, just noting how significant physical sites are as caution, and as tribute.

Morag Fraser | 16 April 2015  

This is a brave piece of writing. Unfortunately, I feel it is too late. My church on Sundays has negligible numbers of people younger than 60. This is not just down to clerical abuse in the past, but those things give an excuse that I find hard not to use myself. What we are hearing about the place in Rockhampton is frightening. Hearing that Christian Scientists (scientists!!) have some biblical or other valid reason not to vaccinate their children holds all religions up to deserved ridicule. Thanks Andrew for whispering into the prevailing wind.

Frank | 16 April 2015  

Thanks Andy! I love the thought of a symbolic place of atonement and reconciliation. My hope and prayer is that the Archdiocese will also consider the needs of the future Church by re-imagining the whole St James' precinct - maybe by listening to the voices of St James and Star of the Sea students - students who live a vibrant faith within our blessed and broken church.

Anne Muirhead | 16 April 2015  

A thought provoking and beautiful piece, thank you Andrew. I think that the violation of children and people's trust is even more surely the destruction of God's consecrated creation...

Peter Doyle | 16 April 2015  

Thank you Andrew for what I read as a balanced and respectful commentary on this Church fire. Can we not encounter our God and the suffering of others in the sacrament of the liturgy and in this cleansing fire? As for the burning of consecrated hosts, these too are returned to God as holocaust, a burnt offering; no desecration here.

Paul | 16 April 2015  

What a great article! I am reminded of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which was seen as God's judgment on a people who had turned away from God and broken God's holy laws.

Gwilym Henry-Edwards | 16 April 2015  

Thank you for your comments. As a former sexual abuse adviser, what you have written here could be a balm for those who have suffered abuse.

Bev Smith | 16 April 2015  

An idea from left field - often the very best of ideas. I wonder what survivors would think of it?

Frank Golding | 16 April 2015  

John Kersh, I agree with you in every respect. I would add that the unknown author also rubs further salt into the wound with his/her callous comments.

John Whitehead | 16 April 2015  

Thanks Andrew for a suggestion that many will find unpalatable. That some worry about the closure of churches suggests to me that one of the central tenets of Vatican 2 has been missed. We are the church: not the buildings! When we live as Christ stated in John's gospel we will be living signs of his presence. Until then the rest can be just empty ritual no matter how prized our feelings are for the houses of ritual. The difficult thing is to avoid 'throwing out the baby with the bathwater.' As a community we do need to congregate to listen to the Word and to be challenged by it as well as places to hold sacramental rituals.

Ern Azzopardi | 16 April 2015  

Thank you Andrew and Morag Fraser too. Coventry, Berlin and Munster exhibit monuments to past failings and sadness but also witness our determination for peace and goodwill.

John Morkham | 16 April 2015  

I don't understand how one's deeds could alter the virtues of one's faith. The burning of a church because of its parish priest's unforgivable behaviour reminds me of the burning of women who were deemed to be witches. It's archaic as well as misguided. In this instance, it is tragic that the presiding priest of the church committed a number of clerical abuse on children. But I fail to understand that burning the platform from which this abusive priest operated would erase the prevailing epidemic of child abuse in some religious and charity organisations. By the same symbolic logic, is the seat of Catholicism also not vulnerable to acts of destruction? Apart from the arsonist, who then is responsible for the burning of the property that has nothing to do with the abusive behaviour of its occupant? The organisation from whence the occupant comes from? The popular media that believe that any means justify the end? Or those whose remarks are seen to be the cause of the events that followed? Or is it all of us, who care less about the integrity of our social values? It is odd that a Christian country such as Australia is also devoid of charity where it is most needed.

Alex Njoo | 16 April 2015  

No cleansing 'magic' occurred during the burning of St James... The Celtic feast of Beltaine (feast of the fires) was a major festival to celebrate the beginning of summer and triumph over the dark powers. Traditionally, a fire would be lit by Ireland's High King on the top of the Hill of Tara, and his fire would then be used to light all other fires. So, when St Patrick lit a fire in advance of High King Laoghaire, he was deliberately inviting attention from the Pagan Chiefs. The druid elders were sent by Laoghaire to investigate and they reported back that Patrick's fire had magical powers because they could not put it out. They warned that if the king did not extinguish Patrick's fire, it would burn forever. King Laoghaire was unable to extinguish the saint's fire and accepted that Patrick's 'magic' was stronger than his. Although he did not choose to convert to Christianity himself, the king endorsed Patrick's mission to convert the Irish... Christ's Fire is about Love and Forgivness not destruction. Even a wizard like Harry Potter knows this.

Mary | 16 April 2015  

A brave article Andrew. Closing a church, on a temporary basis, where abuse has occurred is worth considering. We might be surprised though at how many would be closed. Another idea would be for all churches in Australia on the same Sunday to hold Masses of atonement. In this way congregations would be able to express and bring into the light their pain and regret for what has happened in the past. Those who have left the Church because of what they see as the hypocrisy of silence, might even be partly reconciled.

Maureen O'Brien | 16 April 2015  

JC summed it up perfectly... “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! ... Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division." I tend to think that the fire and division is about cleansing of structural injustice. That doesn't negate the sadness that Andrew and others will feel at the loss of a church that has _also_ been wonderful.

DeC | 16 April 2015  

The article in the Age by Rachel Griffiths' was a mature response to a critical incident. One sick and evil man has hurt many. The Church is just a building - It's the faithful remnant that deserve to have their Church restored rather than honouring the memory of one evil man. Jesus reminds us "Father forgive them for they know not what they do". The man has gone, leave judgement to our just God.

helen | 16 April 2015  

This logic would close most USA schools as 4.5 million kids have been sexually molested by staff -no priests[Charol Shakeshaft report to Congress]

Father John George | 16 April 2015  

I respect but don't like this article. It's avoiding. 1. That a dangerous sociopath committed a crime of arson on an historic building, and the lives risked to try and save it and the surrounding buildings. 2. The societal silence of generations since Archbishop Little destroyed evidence of corrupt priests, and we're all culpable in our inadequacy in that silence. 3. That most sexual abuse occurs in families, like violence, and the abhorrent betrayal of trust by some priests, the church and it's leaders, can't rely on 'god' anymore for the way forward. We don't need sympathy, we need wise leadership. Any rituals offered are too little, too late. Why weren't these ideas and feelings articulated 5 years ago, 10, 20..? May we forgive those who trespass against us, and learn to hear and not just listen....

Marianne Hamilton | 16 April 2015  

Gods presence is felt in the gentleness of the breeze. Evil must be recognised for what it is and the perpetrators dealt with, victims helped to healing and justice and the community of Church supported to carry on what is truly of God and His love. Selfish acts and hatred must have no place.

Pat | 16 April 2015  

Thank you Andrew. Much to ponder and much to mourn both in reference to the awful evil of sexual abuse perpetrated by a former parish priest, and the destruction of a beautiful church building. However, I can't help but think of all the good priests who have ministered at Gardenvale over the years, and generations of holy parishioners who were inspired by the Good News of Jesus. Is this not the prime reality of the church that is in Gardenvale? A demonic place? Yes AND no. And what of my friend Abraham bargaining with God? How many good people does it take to avert destruction? In recent times, there have been many people in the parish, and one parish priest whom I know, who have labored hard and long to bring healing, peace, justice, purification and atonement. The only lasting 'monument' to atonement is not a church building destroyed, but the Gospel alive and powerful in the lives of Christians. This alone will ensure that children will always be protected in the Catholic Church. May it be so!

John Tollan | 16 April 2015  

Andrew it is not the church building with its legacy of a paedophile priest that needs to be transformed. The attitude of the Catholic Church itself is accountable for the suffering and lost innocence of children. The terrible deeds inflicted by nuns and priests in orphanages, the unspeakable violence given to these ‘the least of my little ones’ indicates how sick the Catholic religious system has been for centuries. Jesus speaks plainly in Scripture about the sanctity of childhood as being the most prized virtue to be nurtured and nourished and taken into adulthood. These virtues of vulnerability, wonder and inner beauty have been destroyed by the ignorance of church officials who claimed that children were born in sin and not eligible for entry into heaven without baptism. Even in a culture that failed to give children the right to be heard the church should have been there for them, demanding safety and recognition of the inherent dignity given by God at conception. But instead the Melbourne archdiocese protected their own self- made honour, they forwarded to Pickering retirement funds in England whilst withholding his contact details from the police. He was saved by the clergy whilst his victims got a life sentence. In the end the Cardinals and Popes too will be held accountable for their own guilt too, because of their failure to heed the teachings of Jesus in Scripture about the sanctity of childhood and their wrong assumptions about the status of children.

Trish Martin | 16 April 2015  

So many different ways of looking at the meaning of this 'ruined' church, and probably all of them have a window on the truth. I like Fr. Andrew's suggestion. We Catholics understand the language of symbol and metaphor. Wouldn't the preservation of St James be a rich and powerful sign, at least, of so many aspects of the catastrophe that has engulfed our Church? Human weakness and depravity, human repentance, the Body of Christ - people, consecrated host, tortured and burned and 'yet we are alive'? Of course the long process of cleansing and renewal and 'making safe' must continue in the Church as well as in this church. Couldn't St James become one sign of what we have done, and suffered, and hope for?

Joan Seymour | 16 April 2015  

One priest in the x Years life of a beautiful church ? This magnificent building did nothing to cause the abuse. The priest's fellow priests and friends should be the focus of any debate. How could someone not have had some inkling of the evil in the priest in question. Four generations of my family had involvement with St. James Church .... and our memories are happy ones.

Jack Bowen | 16 April 2015  

Thoughtful, brave and inspired. A monument to "Father, forgive" would be magnificent. Can a humbled Church do it? Hope so.

Donna Dening | 16 April 2015  

Thank you for such searing honesty Andrew. How refreshing. I agree with Joan Seymour ... Catholics are 'at home' in symbol and metaphor. What better way to make tangible the gospel message that recognises the role 'a remnant' plays in building and rebuilding community out of ashes. By making visible the difficult and lengthy process of naming shame through the tangible image of a 'broken/burnt church' and acknowledging the impact it has on individual and communal life (loss of trust - of people and place) ... it has the potential to shift suffering from within a person and its community to an external representation. That act alone can be very healing to such deep betrayal, and loss of innocence and trust. It would take a very courageous community to undertake such action. What a humbling prayer it would be for all to bear witness to.

mary tehan | 16 April 2015  

When I was in West Berlin in 1972 I saw that the church near Checkpoint Charlie had remained a shell. A new church had been built alongside. Germany does this well.Now having been in Hamburg I saw a huge empty square which is prime property. There a Jewish Synogogue had been burnt by the Nazis. It has not been built on since, kept as an empty silent memorial; as a reminder that such things should not happen again. This should be considered by the Church now.Such horrific acts of abuse must not go unnoticed.

Mira Zeimer | 16 April 2015  

Hear Hear Andy, congratulations on your article, and for your courage in opening up this conversation. Those of us who choose to be involved in this tragedy, in finding a path to healing following the findings of the royal commission, know what lies behind these acts of wanton destruction...the pain, trauma and suffering and the desperate attempt to be seen and heard. Im convinced that in time these church fires will be seen almost as purifying fires, beacon fires, designed and delivered to send an unambiguous message to the church...we can only hope and pray that, like you, they will hear that message. Yours with love and respect, Myles Durham

Myles Durham | 16 April 2015  

A late squeak. Somehow this article didn't feel right to me. Rachel said what she said. However, The Age newspaper (30/03) carrying Rachel's sound bite for mass media carried also an empathic storyline for the loss felt by current users. I felt her position as reported, was harsh. I think there is too much identification with her position, which is probably under reported, and i can feel the rage. But time for mellowing has transpired. Is there a loss of objectivity? You express sympathy for the congregation, then follow it with a But, evil things happened in this church. The possibility of retribution as speculated by that news story seems then to be excused because that was the place where evil preyed upon weakness, where a personal power conquered lesser powers, being that congregation called the Church of St James. And other places. Reading, I felt way too much was being led, so that it made me feel as if, that if I was you, I was feeling ashamed. Do you feel that all clergy, are by default, in the dock? Is the congregation too? Are all Catholics? Christians? Religionists, East and West? Atheists? Yes, all humanity has exactly the same power imbalances that play out in forms of abuse. As a very ordinary mortal I run the risk of overstepping my allotted pigeon-hole in society and receiving hate mail from all around when i say that the problems of sexual abuse within the Catholic communities world wide has unfortunately, I feel, become a tendency for inappropriate self loathing within those communities. And of condemnation from without. The guilt being experienced is not a gift from God. It comes from the other side. I remind us that understand the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive others" is the Christian mantra, the prayer left us by Jesus, the order to forgive in order to be forgiven. There's no room left for guilt, for self loathing, for an unworthiness of love.. There's no wiggle room. If we allow the worlds' subjective judgments to prevent us from experiencing our acceptance of God's total and unfathomable love for us by not acknowledging God's forgiveness, by not embracing our own self forgiveness as being inclusive of forgiving others, then our self condemnations will indeed separate us from the acceptance we most seek. Towards the acknowledgement of all those harmed (all genders and ages and relationships) including perpetrators, the only fitting action is prayer and community atonement. Yes, most definitely community atonement, because sexual bullying and depravation has been going on since Adam & Eve were children, in all cultures. It happens in the broadest spectrum of families, tribes, workplaces, etc. Evil from somebody a child knows happens to a very large proportion of our young and is mostly not properly addressed. Children are even punished to silence. And then, there are the rest of us, damaged somewhere along the journey, and at various stages of recovery into an emotional maturity. Legislation is drafted, enacted, policed, enforced, according to mores of the powerbrokers. Individual power relies upon our own conception of self worth. It's incumbent on parents to nurture self worth so that the individual can say "No". Christianity can help us be better parents. The best guideline is The Lord's Prayer. I don't see legislation ever fulfilling the parenting role. Finally, I was taught at probably about the same time as Andrew that if you find the movie quite objectionable, to slash the cinema seat as a form of protest is futile. OK, maybe a long bow, but the arrow is in the paddock. A burnt church is futile. A community assailed by an arsonist and a Hollywood condemnation is futile. A community hearing the letters of Paul to Corinth would learn worthwhile lessons on rebuilding. This is a difficult letter to write - the concepts of self love, of worthiness, have taken a long time to form, and are far from complete.

MichCook | 16 April 2015  

", to leave the ruined walls of St James as a shrine to the victims" God's way seems to allow LIFE to come from death, rather than preserve signs of death. What is needed so that we will 'worship in spirit and truth' is that we should 'all be one' in mind and heart., and put aside the divisive spirit that keeps us apart. Most religions suffer from declining congregations, but occasionally need a larger place for special events. Perhaps St. James could be built as a place which could be shared by different faiths to encourage better cooperation and understanding for all. So goodness would be reborn from evil.

Robert Liddy | 16 April 2015  

Moreover, John Whitehead. Ever hear the expression, “throwing salt in the wound”? This may sound like a painful remedy, but the reality is sea salt is a natural anti-inflammatory and antibiotic. For thousands of years people have been using salt to heal the body, and recently it is becoming more popular with people looking to avoid the drug store. Ancient Egyptians had recorded its effectiveness, and the Roman doctors used sea salt in ointments and various drinks for healing purposes. Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men who dare burn down churches?

AO | 16 April 2015  

That church was built and maintained with the contributions of thousands of ordinary (innocent) people and families who put parts of their salaries into the effort over a century. It doesn't belong to, or represent, any individual priest. And in what way is it 'brave' to suggest that someone is entitled to burn/destroy/sacrifice the efforts of those innocent people meant for the future hope of the parish? It is 'brave' to offer your own house for the pyre - it's a bit cowardly, I think, to allow someone to burn down someone else's. Maybe burning down Parliament would be a reasonable response to the many injustices of its past? If we condone sacking as a response to all manner of mistakes of members of the Church, there would be no St.Peter's in Rome much less no St. Jame's in Gardenvale.

Michael | 16 April 2015  

Those who burn down churches and those who think it is just fine to do so should not be too sure: Host desecration is a form of sacrilege in Christianity (most frequently identified as such in the traditions of Anglicanism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and Catholicism) involving the mistreatment or malicious use of a consecrated host—the sacred bread used in the Eucharistic service or Mass. In Catholicism, where the host is held to have become the Body of Jesus Christ, host desecration is among the gravest of sins. Intentional host desecration is not only a mortal sin but also incurs the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae. Throughout history, a number of groups have been accused of desecrating the Eucharist, often with grave consequences due to the spiritual importance of the consecrated host.

Mary | 16 April 2015  

I think the idea in the break in use of a church is brilliant. Parishioners in general are very hurt and those whose family were injured even more so. We need symbols that there has been and will be change. Bravo!

Marianne | 17 April 2015  

Thank you, Andy for this insight. Berlin, too, has a remnant of their destroyed Cathedral, as a bridge to Coventry and connection in this prayer and action for forgiveness. Keep us daring to pray, think and act..

Sr Francis Baum | 17 April 2015  

St James’ Gardenvale has been the spiritual home of many generations and of many parish priests who helped the people live out their faith. One of those priests was guilty of appalling crimes. Andrew Hamilton makes the case that some form of justice is served by the burning of the church. The few caveats in his argument do not alter the fact that he is condoning the criminal act of arson that is aimed so directly at current parishioners, the school and the parish priest. When his actress niece made public comments indicating her “relief” at the burning, I regarded it as utterly irresponsible and thoughtless, but eventually dismissed it as a celebrity’s publicity-seeking, which of course was taken up greedily by the media. The views expressed in this article will be damaging for some time. They will provoke polarised positions rather than debate, and it is disappointing indeed to see it in Eureka Street

T. J. Martin | 17 April 2015  

Just realized I don't know any detail of the Priest in question. Even if he is dead now why should'nt he be exposed rather than just referred to as 'the priest'. St. James Church has been burnt down and exposed as 'evil' and that building was innocent. Too much about about the bluestone .... not enough about the 1 priest in question and the circumstances that made him do what he did. 99.5% (?) of priests are wonderful ..... our Catholic Faith is wonderful .... We are letting one priest (again, why not name him) blot out a history of St. James church/Parish that was overwhelmingly positive.

Jack Bowen | 17 April 2015  

Marianne would you also say a break in the use of a hospital would be brilliant? : The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle...You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. ... And you have to start from the ground up. Pope Francis

Mary | 17 April 2015  

It's incredible that even now the Church is repeating its mistakes on the sex abuse issue. Pope Francis, assured the world last year that reform and transparency had finally come to the Vatican and that families "should also know that they have every right to turn to the church with full confidence". But now he has appointed a Chilean Bishop who is strongly suspected by many to (as a priest) have concealed - and maybe even witnessed - the sex abuse crimes of a fellow priest. The Vatican's response has been that it has examined the allegations against the Reverend Juan Barros and found them baseless. But there's the problem. Who believes the Vatican on these issues any more, and why should they? The appropriate response to the allegations would have been to have them examined by a totally independent and competent body. In other words, follow the procedure adopted by Cardinal Pell and Fr John Fleming when they were accused, and now Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide. It strains credulity that Pope Francis and the Curia still can't grasp this point. (See "Members of Vatican abuse commission question Francis' inaction in Chile" in the National Catholic Reporter.)

HH | 17 April 2015  

Symbols are important, personally I would rather see George Pell walk down Swanston street in sackclothe and ashes, but we need structural reform to address clericalism e.g. removing PPs as heads of Parish Schools decentralized power where the congregation appoints Ministers as the Uniting Church does and a public independent process of compensation acknowledgement and the offer of reconciliation to victims. I have seen a hardworking nun who devoted years of her life to a parish arbitrarily dismissed by an incoming PP with little opposition from those she had supported so more power to women would also need to be part of the solution

Michael O'Hanlon | 17 April 2015  

I doubt if the people complaining about the articles have actually read it carefully, because it clearly "does not imply that we applaud people for burning down churches; where evil things are done." And for those complaining about anonymous comments, spare a thought for the anonymity of the arsonist and what may have led to such rage.

AURELIUS | 17 April 2015  

I agree with Maureen O' Brien comments this I am sure all who were abused would prefer this than burning churches down I know would like to see this happen it would help me in my journey in healing from the abuse I received as a child. Maureen.

Maureen Trewin | 17 April 2015  

There is already a 'symbol', the sign of the cross...To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xceFQWV3lMM

AO | 17 April 2015  

Thanks for your varied and helpful comments on this article. To take up a few points. I still do not accept that to express a feeling of satisfaction at the destruction of a building is to condone or encourage the action that leads to the destruction. It is one of many feelings and responses that one may have to different aspects of the event. Many people rightly pointed to other more important responses to abuse than ritual cleansing of churches. Ritual will be decent and efficacious only if it is accompanied by effective structures of ensuring accountability, care for victims and protection of children. I found the variety of approaches taken to church buildings interesting. Some argued that buildings are not affected by what communities do in them. I disagree – church buildings symbolise and retain the labours of those who built and gave their lives to sustain them. They also retain and symbolise the destructive and wicked actions of congregations and clergy associated with them. A church is never just a building. I confess I had not thought of the destruction of consecrated hosts. An appalling action if intended. It does also evoke the image of Jesus crucified between thieves.

Andy Hamilton | 17 April 2015  

In my 1997 visit to Berlin,I was impressed how the war-damaged Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church spire was retained in its damaged state as a reminder of the outcomes of WW2. Deeper impact than if it had been completely repaired & renewed.

Geoff D Bolton | 17 April 2015  

Granted Felix culpa;nonetheless, I find that "to express a feeling of satisfaction at the destruction of a church involving desecration of Sacred Hosts, utterly bizarre, however wrapped in pious sanctimony! ADD of course a Catholic priest not thinking immediately of the hosts!

Father John George | 17 April 2015  

Very good article & later clarification by you, Fr Andrew. The Church rebuilding ideas have real merit. We have a similar old Church, St Patricks Cathedral in Toowoomba - no sex abuse there in it (that I know of.) A Catholic primary school nearby had a sex abuser as a teacher just a few years ago & our previous Bishop Bill Morris looked after the victims' interest as best he & local diocese could. Our past as Catholics in Australia is both good & bad - and we NEED to OWN (but not condone) the evil done by priests & other Catholic religious in our churches or where-ever. This is very hard issue for older Catholics like myself to openly admit - sex abuse of children inevitably destroys some of the respect & trust we feel for our clergy overall. The only way foward is to admit the frailty of us all, priests & religious & lay-people alike, plus care properly and compassionately for ALL victims of abuse. Then we need to trust in the unconditional forgiveness of Jesus for us all & move forward as "The Church" that we ALL are, with more transparency & humility.

John Cronin, Toowoomba Q | 17 April 2015  

Thanks Andy XO

Angela | 17 April 2015  

I am amazed at the number of people who supported your warped suggestions that there could be some circumstances where arson was justifiable !!

Brian | 17 April 2015  

Thank you Andrew for that thoughtful article. I agree that to leave the ruins as a standing reminder would be a great idea.
The experience of seeing Coventry Cathedral ruins is profound.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 17 April 2015  

As a parent of 2 children at Saint James Primary, I can say that the entire school community has been shocked and quite devastated by the burning of our beautiful church. My 8 year old is just as upset as we are and I have not found a single parent who thought Rachael's comments were a valid or intelligent response to this terrible destructive criminal act. Andrew, you must be joking to describe Rachael's comments as emotionally intelligent??? Emotional maybe, but reckless and naive most certainly. Don't forget that Saint James today is a thriving school community and the Saint James Church is a very important part of the school. Our kids now have a burnt out wreck on their doorstep for years to come and our community has to contend with shrill populists applauding its destruction ...This is our school and our community is strong and thriving and it will remain so in spite of this article...by the way we share the same revolution against pedophiles and those who protected them...don’t make it worse by applauding further violence against our kids and school community.

Hamish Rodgers-Wilson | 17 April 2015  

Hamish Rodgers-Wilson, thank you and like-minded others for saying it like it is. Too many sycophant type comments here not taking Fr Andrew Hamilton to task. I believe you are duty-bound to apologise to St James community for your inexplicable comments and failure to address them to date (re your support of Griffiths and her attitude - "she echoed my own feelings ..." and then you tar former contemporaries of the congregation of being in agreement with you. You go on and clear yourself, as HH noted - " does not imply that we applaud people for burning down churches", however the more I read this the more apparent your emotions are mixed, as you admit. The give away is the use of too many weasel words. Fess up Fr Andrew. That is what is expected of all of us, especially clergy, these days.

MichCook | 17 April 2015  

Thanks,Andy. I share similar mixed sentiments. I won every argument with the evil malicious Pickering, from his refusal to permit my first Mass in 1978 to my brother's&sister's weddings to his absence at my faithful father's funeral & his overall outrageous pastoral, not to forget even worse sexual abuse over 15 years. My late mother&and family were relieved & acknowledge the good work of the Sunday Age investigative reporters some 6 years or more after he hit the airport running in 1993 to expose his evil conning. Sad he was never brought to justice. Sympathy to his victims, the survivors still suffering. Not of course to justify the destruction of a historic church which mans so much to many, including me. j

John Hannon | 17 April 2015  

What a thoughtful article! Some measure restoration of faith and healing of spirit for abused people through purification of an "abused" church - a thoroughly commendable idea.

Philip Armit | 18 April 2015  

As far as I am aware the police have not arrested anyone in connection with the burning down of St James church. Most of us assumed it had something to do with Fr. Pickering's paedophilia. It will be interesting if the culprit was just another arsonist. It is also interesting that many of us put out of mind the current clergy and parishioners there and their shock and loss. Everything seems interconnected and I think part of the saga of Catholic Melbourne. I guess bringing everyone together and moving on just got harder.

Edward Fido | 18 April 2015  

In view of the public revelations through Rachel Griffiths and all the recent revelations of abuse would not a public Rededication and blessing of the site be appropriate and a recognition by the Archbishop of regret for the actions of all offending priests

Bede Hickey | 18 April 2015  

Take your pick:1) A break in the use of the church as a place of religious celebration would mark the break in relationships with God and among people caused by the abuse? 2) infinite Love and Mercy: The liturgical life of the Catholic Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. The purpose of the sacraments is to make people holy, to build up the body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God; but being signs, they also have a teaching function. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and object, they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called "sacraments of faith." The sacraments impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them disposes the faithful most effectively to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God rightly, and to practice charity. Worship is integral to our lives as Christians. When we engage in the prayer and ritual of the Church, we are formed as Church. Our sacramental rites are of primary importance while we are gathered. Infinite Love and Mercy, for me please.

Mary | 18 April 2015  

I listened to Rachel's interview and empathised. Your article, Andy, clarifies for me the disquiet with other churches being set alight, and also affirms seeing it as an opportunity for healing and rebuilding. Thank you.

Julia Wake | 19 April 2015  

The temporary (or even permanent) closure of a church which has been a place of great evil has great merit. The sanctioning of violence as an acceptable response to evil, although understandable, is hardly consistent with our faith which asks us to forgive 77 times 7 times. If only the ideas in the second last paragraph of the article had been more prominent..

Peter Anderson | 20 April 2015  

By being Christ's light to each other ( not flames of fire fueled by fire) shining in the darkness, knowing the darkness can never extinguish it, may our hearts find peace and rest. We must be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good by pleading St James be restored and given back to our precious community ASAP.

a parishioner | 20 April 2015  

Fr Andrew, Jumping to the defence of your niece and extended family because of "Pickering" is perfectly understandable, understood and appreciated. To suggest that the church of St James built with the love and support of your family, my family and thousands of other parishioners families as "tainted" does you as a former parishioner, priest and respected Jesuit, absolutely no credit whatsoever. Shame upon you Fr Andrew.

John Taylor | 21 April 2015  

Andrew, your empathy is so wonderful. Every time I read your articles, it gives me such hope for humanity. It's beyond my comprehension the lack of compassion shown in some of the comments. There has been such horrendous suffering, and the thing is, try to imagine it was your child. That's what empathy is.

HFA | 22 April 2015  

to MARY: The sacraments are also physical, material and depend on human involvement. The church building is not the church - the people are the church. Surely taking one building off the list, even as a symbolic gesture, is an acknowledgement of the abuse of a member of that church.

AURELIUS | 22 April 2015  

Years ago, I along with another victim of a pedophile priest, decided it was time to go and visit the Bishop of Bunbury. We didn’t want money just to be heard and for others to be offered a way of being heard. We talked of our intention to throw the money changers out of the temple, just had Jesus had done. The temple had being desecrated as had the Bunbury Cathedral. Finally we made our decision and that day a tornado, an act of God tore the Cathedral down, an act of destruction I would not have done, yet in some way I feel part of that act. The truth is I was pleased it had gone and I know there are others who feel the same. I know my own rage at the time, had a rage that came with fully recognising the depth of feeling within me of betrayal and abandonment and with that feeling rage I didn't know I had. The rage has changed now because so many have walked and accompanied us along the journey. The rage is now tamed and purposeful and even hopeful. The Cathedral has been rebuilt and I am yet to go inside. That will take a symbolic gesture on the part of the Bishop that welcomes all those who have been victims into his new Cathedral. I am taken by Andy's suggestion the ruined church become a symbol, some sort of shrine that acknowledges in its ruined state what has been done and at the same time offers some sort of hope of resurrection.

john dallimore | 22 April 2015  

The tragedy of this article is that the insightful comments on assisting with the healing of the victims of sexual abuse overlook or ignore the violence behind the burning of St James’ Church, Gardenvale. The symbolism of the burning church as utilised by Andrew Hamilton has its origin in a criminal act, a violent destructive act that endangered the lives of emergency services personnel and local residents. It was also an act that destroyed the spiritual home of many generations and those parish priests who helped the people live out their faith. There is a living parish at St. James. Liturgies, Eucharists, baptisms, marriages and funerals have all had to be transferred from their faith community to elsewhere. The church building is just stone and mortar - its soul is the faith community. Andrew Hamilton does a disservice to that community. They have had to live through, pray through the impact on parishioners of the despicable crimes of a parish priest (a priest who fled overseas in 1993 to escape his personal responsibility) and now the lose of their church building. Many people have failed the victims, not the building. The members of St. James parish are deserving of support. Many of Andrew Hamilton's ideas on how to assist victims warrant full discussion at another forum. Using the destruction of a faith community's church is not an appropriate forum.

Kevin | 23 April 2015  

MichCook your ‘late squeak’ has profound thoughts, a week has gone by and I’m still pondering its message. I’m stunned too by those who are hurt by the thought of consecrated hosts being burned. The tale of the ‘burning bush that was not consumed’ (Exodus 3) is a sound starting point for understanding better the Holy Eucharist. The whole earth is sacred ground, not the sanctuary and tabernacle of a church. God is with the suffering of innocent children, and those who are most vulnerable to abuse by misguided power. At the Last Supper Jesus said to ingest him whole-heartedly (flesh and blood) for life giving health of mind, spirit and body because of the Resurrection of his body. I dont think that he meant this to mean that hosts were to be consecrated and locked in a box for worship.

Trish Martin | 24 April 2015  

I think my best moments in London were spent in a little Wren church ruin which had been allowed to become a small walled garden rather than be rebuilt after the war.

helen cantwell | 24 April 2015  

Kevin, I;m not sure if you realise that this article was written after the arsonist committed his/her horrendous act, and it had no bearing on inspiring or justifying the act. Just as we try to glean something positive in hindsight following the disastrous storms in Sydney where 4 people died, commentators are saying that the loss of property really pales in comparison. IN the aftermath of rape, sexual abuse and arson - nothing really compares.

AURELIUS | 25 April 2015  

Precisely my reaction to the destruction of Parramatta Cathedral: documentation of child abuse in the diocese, previously denied, only found on warrant. I wrote so to the Bishop. No triumphalism there.

Rosemary Lynch | 17 May 2015  

We all know who this priest was. I attended St James in the 80's and do not have nice memories of this school.

Anonymous | 06 September 2015  

I was student at St James school. All my school reports (3 times a year) rated me in the bottom five of every grade. The nuns used corporal punishment (violence) to address my learning difficulties. That and phenobarbs meant I didn’t stand a chance. I repeated grade five (and year 10, no yr 12). The sexually abused children deserve justice. The violently abused children will never have their stories heard.

Terry McNiff | 29 March 2018  

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