Saturday, August 28, 2010

Church must face scrutiny for child sex abuse

Church must face scrutiny for child sex abuse
James Campbell From: Sunday Herald Sun August 29, 2010 12:00AM
IT IS tempting sometimes to think that we know everything we can know about the scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
After all, the issue has been loudly canvassed on and off in the media for years - most recently in 2008 when the Pope visited Australia for World Youth Day.

And there comes a point with all grievances when the public, having grown bored with victim groups' endless tales of woe and their apparent refusal to move on, grows weary of their whingeing.

Sometimes, though one knows that great wrongs have been done, a reaction can set in and one starts to wonder whether the complaints may not be overblown.

At the very least it becomes easy to tune out complainants. The Stolen Generation? They got their apology - get over it and get off my TV. James Hardie asbestos victims? They've been paid too, so ditto.

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It is tempting to put the victims of abuse by Catholic clergy into that category. The Pope has apologised. The church has paid out compensation. Surely we should all, as the Prime Minister likes to say, move forward.

But when you look around the world at the way different countries have handled the scandal it becomes clear that the Catholic Church in Australia has got off very lightly indeed.

For while it is true the church has paid out money to the victims of abusive priests, the amounts have been risible.

Until recently the most you could claim was $50,000, from which most victims have had to pay their lawyers.

Which to put some context to it means the Catholic Church puts the price of a primary school child being repeatedly raped as at roughly the cost of a Ford Falcon Turbo.

But in some ways more astonishing than the church's failure to pay adequate compensation for the lives wrecked by the crimes of its clergymen - crimes that bishops abetted by moving them from parish to parish - is the fact that the church has managed to avoid the scrutiny of a royal commission. To get an idea of what such a commission may find you have only to look at Ireland, where the Government's inquiries into child abuse uncovered thousands of victims.

In the US there has been no equivalent of a royal commission, but, thanks to that nation's magnificently vindictive litigation system, the church has been forced to pay out billions and several dioceses have gone bankrupt.

Here there has been no royal commission and difficulties in suing the Catholic Church have meant victims seeking compensation have been forced to take what money the church chose to pay them in settlements which precluded them going to court and, in most cases, even discussing the terms agreed on.

As far as I am aware, the only victims to be paid decent compensation in Australia were Emma and Katie Foster, who were repeatedly abused as primary school children by Father Kevin O'Donnell in Oakleigh in the late 1980s and early '90s.

It was the parents of those girls that Bishop Anthony Fisher was referring to when he accused some people of "dwelling crankily on old wounds".

Now the girls' mother, Chrissie Foster, has published a book which recounts her family's experiences of the Catholic Church.

Her book is an extraordinary account of the way lives can be wrecked by childhood sexual abuse. It is also a reminder that, far from having faced up to what its clergy did, the Catholic Church has sought to downplay its crimes.

It is hard to read the book and not conclude that the Australian church's first priority since the 1980s has been to pay as little money as possible to its victims.

The details of O'Donnell's crimes as Chrissie Foster describes them are not fit for publication in a family newspaper.

The man was a monster who terrorised, raped and abused children over 50 years until he was jailed in 1995.

As with so many other pedophile priests, the church authorities knew of O'Donnell's proclivities for decades, though to be fair, it is hard to imagine they would have kept him near children had they known the extent of his crimes.

What was particularly shocking to me was that in 2004, almost 10 years after O'Donnell was jailed, lawyers for the church were still denying the two girls had been abused by O'Donnell, despite a church probe's findings that he had abused them and a 1998 letter of apology for their suffering sent by then Melbourne Archbishop George Pell.

Reading Ms Foster's book, it is hard not to conclude that, far from being resolved, the scandal of child sex abuse by clergy is still unfinished business. It is time finally for governments to act on the Senate's 2007 motion calling for a royal commission into child sex abuse.

Hell On the Way to Heaven by Chrissie Foster and Paul Kennedy, Bantam Australia, RRP $34.95.

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