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Dear Archbishop: more contrition, please, less deflection

Date

Bill Farr

On the matter of sex abuse by clergy, Denis Hart still doesn't get it.

ON THIS page on Friday, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, defended the Catholic Church's record in dealing with the ever-increasing fallout from decades of sexual abuse by clergy. He predicted the state parliamentary inquiry announced last week would find that his church has been ''fair'' in its dealings with victims.

Sadly, from the outside, that is hard to accept.

I started school in the Catholic system in the early 1960s, and have followed - with more than a passing interest - the slow drip-feed of horrific stories of abuse as they have become public. It came close to home for me about three years ago with the exposing of a priest who, for a short time, was a family friend. It was a shock to realise that he was a serial abuser.

About six months ago, I decided to write about my experiences of growing up at such a time, when respect for the clergy was paramount. Upon doing some research, I discovered that another priest, then at my parish in Essendon, was also a serial offender. There is now an investigation of a possible cluster of suicides in a parish to which he was subsequently moved.

Then came the shocking details, in police reports obtained by The Age, of the suicides of dozens of victims of clerical sex abuse. A number of these occurred at the school where I finished my secondary education - St Leo's in Box Hill.

The abuse in those cases occurred after my time at the school, but while I was there, rumours were rife about another Christian Brother who had been ''moved on'' after taking too keen an interest in the boys in the showers.

I have no knowledge of whether this was true, and, I regret to say, it was treated as a joke among my group of friends at the time. That was in the '70s. Soon after, however, the stories began to emerge, and those of us who were fortunate enough to remain untouched by these men could not fail to be touched by the stories of hopelessness, of wasted lives, and of the perceived lack of support from their church.

Archbishop Hart says he is proud of the achievements on this matter of the Catholic Church in Melbourne. He even personalises the defence thus: ''I reject absolutely any allegations that I have covered up crimes.'' But therein lies the problem. The point is not whether he has been involved personally in any sort of cover-up. What I am interested in is whether the church can face up to a serious abrogation of principle going back, not just years, but decades.

He has spoken about crimes having been perpetrated in other dioceses - thereby appearing to absolve himself and the Melbourne archdiocese of responsibility. But it is the church as a whole that needs to acknowledge responsibility. It needs to make a full, meaningful, credible act of contrition. Like it or not, the church is still apparently in full survival mode. It's time to fess up.

Are we wrong to suspect that, had the stories not become so public, the church may have continued to move abusers around on some macabre merry-go-round of offending?

The archbishop says that ''all victims are free to go to the police at any time''. But the victims are anything but free. They have been imprisoned within themselves by unspeakable acts perpetrated by abusers, and have remained in that state because of the apparent neglect of their church.

Does the archbishop not get that the hurt and the abuse does not begin and end with the act itself? Does he not understand that the crime continues when the offenders are protected?

Certainly, the church has changed its approach in recent years. It would seem, however, that this is only as a result of the growing calls for something to be done - these calls coming from outside the church.

The stories have been with us a long time now.

They have become inexorably linked to what the Catholic Church stands for.

One only has to reflect on the appearance of Cardinal George Pell on Q&A a couple of weeks ago. His reference to ''preparing young English boys'', which began a sentence about religious life, was drowned out by laughter from a large section of the audience. He paused, the laughter subsided, and he said, simply, ''Thank you'' and went on - ignoring the issue totally.

This is where the church now finds itself - hopelessly mired in its defensive attitude to a problem of its own making.

Denis Hart wrote at the end of his Age article that his ''primary pastoral concern is for victims''. That may well be so now. If only it had been his church's position for the past 50 years.

Bill Farr is art director of The Age.

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