So much heartbreak, so much pain, it's about timeNovember 17, 2012
By Chrissie Foster
I COULD never stand to live in a world without justice and truth: at last there will be a platform for both. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement of a royal commission on child sexual abuse has brought to an end the cries from victims and victim supporters. Of course, there have been many tears this week. More will be shed. But the royal commission is a cause for celebration.
For my family, the struggle to achieve this breakthrough began 16 years ago, on March 26, 1996. This was the day my daughter Emma, after almost a year of starving her 13-year-old body to an emaciated 41 kilograms, numerous self-harming horrors and attempts to take her own life, disclosed that our parish priest had sexually assaulted her. Not once, but on many occasions over her primary school years.
Fifteen months later more horror and heartbreak surfaced through a half-finished suicide note from our second daughter, Katie. She had hidden the note in a shoebox. It was written in her very neatest handwriting. Katie had been another victim of our parish priest.
There was no cure for my much-loved daughters. The pain never leaves. After years of subsequent torment, Emma took her own life at the age of 26. Katie, while drunk after binge drinking, was hit by a car in 1999 (she was 15) and still receives 24-hour care as a result of her injuries.
There are many of these stories. Ours is not rare. The Prime Minister's announcement was a godsend, proof that our many voices have been heard and believed, at long last. It feels like justice. The burning truth has ignited a light and we must shine it on the Catholic Church because of its cover-up. The Catholic hierarchy fiercely lobbied against a royal commission. But a royal commission had to be called. The claim from the hierarchy and biased commentators - that the Catholic Church is no different to other organisations in relation to child sex crimes and cover-ups - is nonsense. On the first day of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry I sat and listened to the evidence of Victoria Police and three professors.
All stated they would speak only about the Catholic Church. They based their submissions on records and research. Facts. Catholic Church sex offenders committed six times more sexual assaults on children than all the other religions combined. At least one in 20 Melbourne priests was a child sex offender, but the real figure was probably one in 15. There was a systemic obstruction of police inquiries over five decades.
Officers in two police forces - Victoria and New South Wales - have made allegations of extensive church interference with investigations. The royal commission should look closely at this. It should examine the influence of the religious leaders on police and governments.
Why did state governments allow the church's flawed and destructive Melbourne Response and Towards Healing schemes to exist unchallenged for more than 15 years? At his media conference on Tuesday, Cardinal George Pell, ignoring the Victorian inquiry's expert evidence, chose to blame the ''press'' for a ''smear'' campaign against the Catholic Church. But the media is not the problem. Along with brave victims willing to go to police despite their trauma, the ''press'' has helped find a solution. If journalists had not written and broadcast stories of crimes and cover-ups, the likes of Father Gerald Ridsdale and countless other convicted criminal priests would still be celebrating Mass in Australia's Catholic parishes.
One thing is certain: the priesthood never lifted a finger to protect children from ongoing sexual assaults and rapes. Rather, the church paid for the paedophiles' legal defences. Not one priest or brother did it help jail.
Cardinal Pell said the confessional seal was ''inviolable''. I say the lives and bodies of our children are inviolable. Why should a foreign state law - the Vatican's Canon Law - override our Australian laws in protecting our children?
To understand why the confessional seal must be broken to protect children, we need only look at evidence given to a Queensland court in 2004. Father Michael McArdle, after pleading guilty to and being convicted of child sexual assault offences, swore an affidavit. In it he stated he had confessed to sexually assaulting children 1500 times to 30 different priests over a 25-year period.
Every one of those ''good'' priests, as if of one mind and voice, said to the criminal: ''Go home and pray.'' Is that what they are taught to say to each other when told of such crimes? Not one of the 30 priests urged him to get help or go to police. Nor did they report his crimes. The victims were abandoned to become hurting adults, their lives shattered. Distraught. Suicidal.
This is a rare insight into the secret world of paedophile priest confession. We must learn from it. The church system was designed to protect the priest and church from scandal. It was not established to consider the futures of Australia's children. We must not be distracted by the confusion and side issues thrown our way by the church hierarchy.
If mandatory reporting had been enforced at McArdle's first confession, then the next 25 years of pain and suffering for children would never have occurred. The guilt of which he was unburdened though confession only served him to reoffend within the same week. Cardinal Pell said he welcomed the royal commission. Why then did he deny its need just the previous day and the 20 years before?
Recently he spoke of a ''cancer'' in the church. He is part of that cancer. Perhaps it is time for Cardinal Pell to step down and hand over to another cleric who possesses some empathy and compassion for children.
As for the royal commission, the government must strive to write the best terms of reference that encompass the essential need to expose child sexual assault and its cover-up in organisations.
Justice and accountability are needed for past crimes against children. Though it will not help my daughters, this will ensure change and safety for all future children. Only with this reality will victims become survivors.
Chrissie Foster is the co-author of "Hell On The Way To Heaven".