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Yes we can beat church sex abuse


In his Easter message, Cardinal George Pell made an oblique reference to sexual abuse in the Church when he referred to 'Christian failures to live up to Christian standards' and 'too many scandals and many victims'.

There is no doubt that most Australians dismiss such utterances as too little too late. Yet it is possible to look at them optimistically when set against actions of the recent past.

Less than two years ago, Bishop Anthony Fisher was widely criticised for describing those who focused on sexual abuse during World Youth Day as 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. Earlier, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson had been criticised by his fellow bishops for his 2007 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church in which he dealt frankly with sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church is fortunate that it has templates to work from, in the processes that have accompanied the formal apologies to wronged Australians made by the Prime Minister on behalf of all of us. These were the apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008 and the apology to the Forgotten Australians in November 2009. These apologies demonstrate that reconciliation is possible.

On the morning after the Forgotten Australians apology, John Honner wrote in Eureka Street that they were 'all innocent', and there had been many living 'heroic, resilient lives, holding on to hope … struggling for recognition, respect, healing and compensation for over a decade'. In making the apology, the Prime Minister accepted that this was 'an ugly story' and that 'its ugliness must be told without fear or favour'.

Honner pointed out that there would be some who had been associated with the children's homes who would not like the judgment on which the apology was based. He suggested that the rationalists would say 'get over it and move on', the apologists would say 'it wasn't all bad', and the lawyers would say 'say nothing'.

The Stolen Generations and Forgotten Australians apologies were many years in the making. They began with angry dismissals, harsh treatment of whistleblowers, and lame admissions. Yet they achieved reconciliation.

With sexual abuse in the Church, it is likely that there are more people on board than we think. Some of the work has already been done. For years, Bishop Michael Malone of Maitland-Newcastle has laboured with abusers and victims, to the extent that it has taken a toll on his own health.

There have been gestures from other Church leaders. In 2003, the then Jesuit Provincial Father Mark Raper took up the challenge from the media to visit and offer solidarity to a victim of sexual abuse. Afterwards on the 7:30 Report, he rejected uncritical reliance on the advice of lawyers, declaring that the Church's 'financial assets are not as important as the people we seek to serve'.

These trailblazers have shown that there is a way forward. Cardinal Pell's acknowledgement of scandals in his Easter message is a start. But the task will not be complete until the Bishops make a formal apology. In preparing the apology, they might profitably draw on Bishop Robinson's book.


Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.




Image - forgottenaustralianshistory.gov.au

Topic tags: Cardinal George Pell, church sex abuse, geoffrey robinson, confronting power and sex in the church



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Existing comments

Well said! This article gives me hope.

Cassandra | 12 April 2010  

There are other victims here too - the innocent priests who are too easily tarred with the same public brush. (I wrote about this in an article some weeks ago.) The statement by the archbishop of Westminster that the roman collar was a symbol of shame in Ireland was not welcomed, but it was true.

The "joke" that was going the rounds in Ireland about the Dublin gurrier who addressed a man in a roman collar "are you a peed-a-fial priest?" hides a great injustice.

Frank | 12 April 2010  

Yes, Cardinal Pell has many innocent people to apologise to in his former arch- diocese of Melbourne. They have suffered under repeated appointments of men,dressed as priests and authorised by him to be deemed worthy of the deepest trust and respect. They have had a free reign over parish schools and the power associated with being the symbol and translator of God's Word. Young boys taken as they assisted in the Mass. Teachers and principals guilt-ridden and in some cases leaving their vocation in shame after unwittingly permitting these horrific acts. Parents and siblings bereft and utterly broken by the unspeakable crimes to their innocent children,who often kept the secret for years,not wanting to hurt their families.Relatives and friends,whole parishes have been brutalized by these criminals and yet Pell sent a succession of them,and there has been no acknowledgment or apology or support.We are alone in our salvaging of lives, with terrible and in some cases irreversible damage. Resilience- Faith Hope Love what are these words now. How can we forgive when there is no attempt at admission, responsibility, apology.

catherine | 12 April 2010  

Sexual abuse is only the tip of the iceberg. After watching Tess of the D'Urbervilles last night and seeing the parson refusing her child, the product of rape, a Christian burial, I have been pondering all the pyschological harm religion and its rules has done to us. And Jesus's cutting through those rules and his criticism of the rule makers of his day and the burdens they put on people.

My childhood was marred by nightmares of my beloved father heading to hell because he wouldn't convert to Catholicism. He died unconverted when I was 15. I knew exactly where where he was because when I was four years old the nuns had shown us vivid pictures of the torments of hell. It's not just Catholicism. More to do with what any theology can do when it purports to reach into eternity and know what happens after death. That then turns into the power to wreak lasting pyschological damage. Or the power to motivate a suicide bomber. May God have mercy on us all.

Teresa Murty | 12 April 2010  

Vey hopeful comments from you Michael Mullins!! Last time I wrote to the West Australian bishops about Geoffrey Robinsons's book I got very little joy.

It is about time the Church took a stand on the issue from a criminal viewpoint- these pedophiles are CRIMINALS and yes they should be forgiven and treated compassionately AFTER they have received civil sanction for their actions.

Rosemary Keenan | 12 April 2010  

I'm puzzled, Michael.
You wrote that "the Stolen Generations and Forgotten Australians apologies ... achieved reconciliation". Do you mean that because the government said 'gee, guys, we're sorry', then all of us - offended, offenders, non-combatants - can now live happily ever after? All obligations fulfilled?

I sincerely hope that reconciliation in the context of the Catholic hierarchy and the victims of sexual abuse will come to mean much more than that.

John R. Sabine | 12 April 2010  

Regrettably, it is again necessary to point out that the Prime Minister's apologies do not represent the views of all Australians. It is disingenuous, deceitful, presumptuous and arrogant to suggest that they do. These theatrical "feel-good" gestures are divisive and an excuse for doing nothing genuinely to help those who have been wronged.

Sylvester | 12 April 2010  


You might note that when announcing the "Melbourne Response" in 1996, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Pell did make an apology to the victims of clerical sexual abuse in Melbourne. However many would argue that the primary purpose and function of the Melbourne Response has been to quietly silence hundreds of victims by offering them pitifully small amounts of compensation when their cases were potentially very damaging to the church.

The system that was established was and is substantially different to the announcements. Victims report consistent mistreatment at many levels. I acknowledge that some compensation is usually offered, but aspects like pastoral care and the "zero tolerance" policies are still nonexistent. The parish pastoral team was disbanded a few months after the announcement, and the statement that Archbishop Pell "welcomes comments" is not implemented by his successor, Archbishop Hart who refuses to speak to those who can make comment meaningfully.

Priests who are known abusers are still ministering in Melbourne - much to dismay of victims and the invitation to

Jim Boyle | 12 April 2010  


Your statement about Bishop Michael Malone suggests an effort by him for victims of abuse that is not accurate.
Bishop Malone placed his trust in those working for him and did not trust the words of those who had been abused.

Only after Bishop Malone's deputy was arrested and it came to light about the diversion of collection funds for legal fees did the Bishop start to consider the plight of victims and their families.

Michael your columns are very influential and the details need to reflect accurately on the events. Perhaps Bishop Malone is overwhelmed by the pain caused to victims and their families by his actions or non-actions when he was truly responsible.

Laurie Sheehan | 12 April 2010  

Perhaps the operative word is "oblique"

It is well past time for "oblique" and the thousands of victims would agree.

Cardinal Pell would be more plausible if he were a little less "oblique"

GAJ | 12 April 2010  

Michael, An informative article. The common connection between the Government's apology to the stolen generation and the attempted apologies by various Church leaders over sexual abuse seems to be a "feel good" feeling and a hope(here shared by politicians too)that now the issue will just fade away!

In both cases we need to keep these people under pressure to go one step further and remove the cause of the issue. Compensation? yes but also a determination to right the wrong and remove the causes that led to the injustice!

Gavin | 12 April 2010  

An apology while welcome is only a start and for many sadly is too little too late. The fundamental betrayal of victims by the perpetrators has been serially compounded by the systemic failures of the institution and its hierarchy to act. We have seen global cover-ups, institutional risk minimisation, failure to bring the perpetrators to civil justice, blaming and re-victimisation of the victims and a failure of pastoral care.

Apologies are needed but they must be matched by a genuine focus on ongoing care and support for victims, reparation, true accountability, real justice, and a structural review of the factors which have enabled secrecy and silence to take precedence over the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the flock.

The ongoing protection of children must be a priority with every measure being taken to ensure not one more innocent child is put at risk. The damage done to the innocents amongst us has been devastating. The victims who have been left struggling, their communities and families must be the focus. An apology yes but real redress and a review and fundamental changes within the institution which allowed so many crimes to be committed within its walls.

Dr. Cathy Kezelman | 13 April 2010  

I am heartened by the article and the responses. It is a fact that the Bishops throughout the church have shown themselves unable alone to act effectively in the face of clergy abuse towards people of all ages. They will need the wisdom and courage of their whole community if they are going to take the actions that are needed. Dr Cathy Kezelman's comments say to me that here is one of many people, women and men, who are ready to be part of making a way forward.

Alex Nelson | 13 April 2010  

The image accompanying this article suggests a further abuse of power that needs redress... sexuality abuse.

I remember when a priest taught me about 'systemic structures of sin' and how I remember thinking to myself that these existed in the world, and the Church existed to correct them. I guess now I think that they exist in the world AND in the Church... and yes, the Church is still needed to correct them.

Damien | 14 April 2010  

A timely and necessary observation, Frank - I've heard, from reliable sources, of seminarians in identifiable garb being verbally abused in the street; but, thank God, not dismayed.

JRK | 14 April 2010  

Demands for apologies go too far. Always go to the police for a police matter.

The Pope or the superiors of clergy only have hearsay to go on. hearsay is not evidence. If I was to sack an employee on hearsay, I would not have enough money to pay the damages the employee would have demanded.
The responsibility lies with the individual or the parents to seek police assistance.

And stop too much sympathy. There is a whole industry of sympathisers and "do gooders" out there and the sympathised with will never get better if you do not tell the "sympathised with" to stop feeling sorry for himself/herself and to get over it.

By all means help a person to lift himself/herself out of the "self pity" situation - but no sympathy.
When a priest has been charged, one can then expect him to be sacked, but before that, the rest is "gossip" as the Pope so recently defined it.

So parents and accusers, go to the police and stop blaming anyone but yourselves up to that time.

allen kavanagh | 16 April 2010  

Teresa, Tess of the D'Urbervilles was the product of a writer's imagination - and probably an atheist. What you saw in "Tess"is entirely inaccurate and the teaching of the church is that babies can be baptised by any person and they also receive a traditional funeral and burial.

annette | 16 April 2010  

I find in very difficult to accept the position taken in this article. The Age Saturday April 17th reports the Pope is calling on Catholics to do penance over the clergy's sins.It would seem there has been no change or better understanding of this issue in spite of further proof of widespread abuse by the clergy.

David ),Donoghue | 19 April 2010  

No they will not be able to beat church sexual abuse until they are willing to admit that they knew it was happening and the prepertrators were protected. Until this happens the Catholic Church will not be free not matter how many times they aplogies. I was horrifically sexually abuse by my parish priest over 40 years ago and I have had a gut full of it. It is still happening. Those that have survived need to come together as a large group and march up to Pell. Any takers Im ready.

Anne Barltrop | 21 July 2010  

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