When healing becomes hell on Earth

SMH - 17/07/2010

A church program is meant to help victims of priestly abuse, but many leave more scarred than ever.

It was Christmas Eve, 2002, and John Ellis was preparing for the holiday. As a Catholic, it was still an important religious festival to him, even though his faith had been tested by the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of Father Aidan Duggan of the Bass Hill parish, some 35 years before.

Then a letter arrived from the Sydney Archbishop George Pell. It said there was no way his abuse claim could be substantiated, as Father Duggan was demented and "in no state to respond to the charges against him".

"I regret that a clear resolution of this matter is not possible, but under the circumstances I do not see that there is anything the Archdiocese can do towards this end," Dr Pell wrote.

This letter, Ellis says, ruined Christmas. The 49-year-old solicitor had spent the entire year in Towards Healing, the protocol created by the church in 1996 to deal with abuse complaints in all states except Victoria.

As revelations of sex abuse and church cover-ups continue to claim clerical scalps around the world, this is the high moral ground on which the Australian church has rested: it led the world in dealing with abuse complaints. But many victims emerge from Towards Healing worse for wear. They say the system is irregular, unprofessional and focused on limiting the church's liability.

Its investigators are not empowered to determine if any church authorities turned a blind eye to abuse or helped conceal it.

Its sanctions are also questionable. Father Finian Egan, a retired Irish-born priest subject to a Towards Healing investigation involving the alleged abuse of girls at Carlingford, has ministered at weddings and funerals since that investigation. A church newsletter recently congratulated him on the 50th anniversary of his ordination. He is now the subject of a police investigation.

Despite Cardinal Pell's discouraging Christmas letter, the church later found Ellis's claim substantiated on the balance of probabilities, but only after he had read his rights under the Towards Healing protocol and insisted an investigator be appointed.


Courtesy of Fairfax Media, Sydney Morning Herald, 2010

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