By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
As Pope Benedict XVI and the leaders of the Catholic church in Australia struggle to focus on the future, in the form of World Youth Day celebrations currently underway in Sydney, it’s proving increasingly difficult for them to get beyond the past.
Specifically, the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church in Australia, as in other parts of the world, are once again making headlines, reminding the pope and his local host, Cardinal George Pell, of a dark chapter in recent church history – and, occasionally, eliciting a testy response from church spokespersons.
Later today, Benedict XVI is expected to formally arrive in Sydney for the opening of World Youth Day, which will culminate Sunday in an open-air Mass.
In recent days, the parents of Emma Foster, a young woman who committed suicide earlier this year after being raped by a Catholic priest in the late 1980s, have requested a meeting with either the pope or Pell. In part, they want to discuss what they see as an overly aggressive response from church officials when they came forward to seek compensation.
The priest in question, Fr. Kevin O’Donnell, reportedly raped both of the couple’s daughters while the girls attended a Catholic primary school.
“That fight [for compensation] sapped Emma’s energy and our energy,” Anthony Foster, the girl’s father, told Australian television earlier in the week. “I truly believe that if the church in Emma’s case and in all other cases begged forgiveness of the victims, promised lifetime help, lifetime support, and really opened up to the victims, particularly in Emma’s case I believe if that had happened she would be alive today.”
The Fosters’ other daughter, Katherine, reportedly developed a heavy drinking habit and was hit by a drunk driver in 1999. She was left disabled, requiring continual care.
Australian media have given the case wide coverage. In a press conference yesterday, Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, the chief organizer of World Youth Day, said the church would listen to the parents, but also said he’s glad most Australians are focusing on the “beauty and goodness” of the young pilgrims rather than “dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.”
The father of the girls involved in the case reacted angrily to Fisher’s remarks.
“It’s unbelievable, almost, to hear a bishop of the church make comments like that about victims,” Foster said. He spoke from Tokyo, en route to Sydney from London.
“It’s astounding. If I hadn’t heard his voice saying it, I wouldn’t have believed it. People are dwelling upon it because there are continuing wounds of victims. In our case, we’re still grieving over the death of our daughter. We’ve had 13 years of anguish and pain … we know of many other victims whose wounds are very open, and they suffer every day. It’s no wonder people are cranky.”
The charges against O’Donnell, who died in 1997, surfaced while Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell apologized in writing at the time, but the Fosters allege that when they sought compensation, church lawyers acting on Pell’s behalf “stalled” their claim and fought them over an eight-year period.
Eventually, the Fosters won what media describe as a “sizeable” payout.
Yesterday, Pell commented only briefly on the case.
“My apology still stands,” Pell told reporters. “I repeat it. It has never been withdrawn. It’s a tragic case in every sense of the word. … It’s one of the worst things that can happen, for a young woman to commit suicide.”
The Fosters arrived in Sydney today, with no word yet on a meeting with church officials.
“I hope to achieve justice in Emma’s name for all the victims who are still alive,” Foster said on Australian television.
In a related development, the Vatican spokesperson dampened expectations of a dramatic apology from Benedict XVI for the church’s handling of the sexual abuse crisis. Some Australian media took the pope’s remarks aboard the papal plane on Saturday, in which Benedict used the phrase “as we apologize,” to mean that one was forthcoming.
Instead, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi told reporters yesterday that while Benedict XVI will address the sex abuse scandals, his comments may not amount to a formal apology.
“I draw your attention to the term ‘apology’ that journalists are using,” Lombardi said. “The pope in the plane spoke of the problems of sexual abuse, but I don’t think he said he would apologize and I advise you to listen to what the pope says when he raises the issue.”