Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In Sydney, "Old Wounds" Slam Spurs Fresh Outrage

Days after the Pope repeated his pledge "to do all possible to heal and to reconcile" with clergy sex abuse victims -- and with a papal apology Down Under still to come -- it'd seem the lead organizer of Sydney's World Youth Day still needs to get up to speed.

Asked at a press conference earlier today about a family's much-publicized advocacy on behalf of its daughter -- a victim who committed suicide earlier this year -- Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher OP characterized the exposure as a small handful "dwelling crankily... on old wounds."

Though the auxiliary (above) subsequently took pains to emphasize that the Australian church was "happy to hear any constructive advice" on how it could improve its victim outreach and would "do all we can to prevent this happening again and to bring healing and justice to the victims of these terrible cases," the damage had already been done. And amid the quiet atmosphere of this second day -- mostly comprised of breakout catechesis sessions and outdoor concerts in the run-up to the papal "boat-a-cade" into the city's Harbour tomorrow -- the comment came at the worst possible moment, easily eclipsing the celebrations in the national press as stories on the bishop's "blunder" and yet another firestorm of reaction currently lead the coverage on Oz's top broadcast and print outlets.

Viewed as something of a "Boy Wonder" among the Catholic right both on his home turf and beyond, the Oxford-trained barrister and bioethicist -- a native Sydneysider -- was made a bishop in 2003 at age 43. Arguably the chief protege of Cardinal George Pell, Fisher followed his boss back from Melbourne, where the former led the church from 1996-2001 and the latter headed up a think-tank on marriage and the family dedicated to Pope John Paul II. Now 48, the Dominican prelate was entrusted with overseeing the WYD effort from its beginnings in 2005.

The backstory involves a Melbourne family, the Fosters, whose two daughters were both repeatedly abused by a single cleric, who was convicted and jailed on other child sex crimes in 1995 before dying two years later. Though the family had settled with the Melbourne archdiocese for an undisclosed sum after eight years of legal proceedings, the suicide of their eldest daughter earlier this year and pre-WYD reports of the cardinal's alleged mismanagement of an allegation from at least one other victim (to whom he apologized last week), the girls' parents flew back from a vacation in Britain over the weekend "to face" Pell and urge him to seek forgiveness. The family's surviving daughter was hit by a car in the years after her abuse and has since required 24-hour care.

In response to Fisher's critique, Anthony Foster -- whose interview on national television last night inspired the quote's context -- told the state broadcaster ABC that "It's unbelievable almost to hear a bishop of the church make comments like that.

"It's astounding and if I hadn't heard his voice say it, I think I wouldn't have believed it."

After the auxiliary's session with reporters, Pell was forced to make his first public comment on the Foster case, in which he reiterated a 1998 apology to the family, yet with a reminder that he was not named as a defendant in their lawsuit against the Melbourne church.

"My apology still stands," the cardinal said. "I repeat it. It has never been withdrawn. It has been a tragic case in every sense of the word and I repeat my apologies."

Pell declined to answer when asked about Fisher's remarks.

In comments aboard the papal plane during his Saturday flight, Benedict XVI said that "the problem" of the abuse crisis "is essentially the same [in Australia] as in the United States."

While the exact content of how he'll tackle it over the coming days has become cause for dispute -- the "papal spokesman" Fr Federico Lombardi saidearlier today that he "[didn't] think [Benedict] said he would apologize" -- the pontiff added in-flight that "it is essential for the church to reconcile, to prevent, to help and also to see guilt in these problems" and that he intended to address "what was insufficient in our behavior, what we must do in this moment."

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In other developments, the Pope has ended his three-day respite at the Kenthurst Study Centre outside the city and was transported earlier today (tonight Oz time) to the cardinal's residence adjacent to St Mary's Cathedral, where he'll stay for the remainder of his visit.

Yet just before leaving the Opus Dei-run retreat, a "traveling menangerie" of animals was brought to him from a nearby zoo. Led by a koala, the group included a snake called Sebastian -- whose name got a laugh from Papa Ratzi as he petted the giant boa.

SVILUPPO: In comments early Thursday, Fisher's top lieutenant at WYD -- the event's COO Danny Casey -- sought to advance that the bishop's "crankily" jab was actually intended as an observation "about how some in the media seek to portray the church during abuse matters.

"[H]e's a man of deep compassion, I know he feels great compassion and sympathy for the victims and for all those who have been hurt through abuse," Casey said.

Meanwhile, still maintaining their belief that the auxiliary's salvo was aimed at them, the Fosters touched down in Sydney later in the day, with Anthony Foster telling a gaggle of reporters at the city's airport that he was "disgusted" by the episode.

PHOTOS: AFP/Getty(1); AFP/Francesco Sforza(2)