It’s the morning after the night before and Australia wakes to the reality that it is to get the most wide-ranging enquiry in its history into the issue of child sex abuse.
It’s been a long time coming. Allegations, some proven, some not, of sex abuse of minors by those in authority – clergy, carers, teachers – have been in the spotlight for decades.
It took a bushfire, lit by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox to turn the decades of tampering around the edges with updated “protocols” and court evidence considered by some institutions to be aberrations, to bring on a Royal Commission.
Though there are many questions yet to be answered about what the Royal Commission will do and how, and though the Prime Minister insists the enquiry is not targeting the Catholic Church, there are more then a few who think it is – and should.
Not easing the hurt of victims is the statement this morning from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference which states that “While there were significant problems concerning some dioceses and some religious orders, talk of a systemic problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is ill-founded and inconsistent with the facts.”
So lets look at some of the facts.
Let’s take the case of Daniel Feenan, now aged 36.
His mother Pat Feenan told me: “Every morning he opens his eyes and he walks with that pain”.
Daniel was an 11 year-old altar boy at St Patricks Church in Maitland in the Hunter Valley, when the abuse by Father James Patrick Fletcher, now deceased, began.
The Feenans’ were devout Catholics when Fletcher was assigned to their parish. They opened their family home as a Christian act of welcoming. Fletcher’s response was to begin grooming their eldest son for sex.
Soon, Fletcher was forcing him in to violent oral and anal sex, often in open spaces. There was always threat involved. The family priest would tell Daniel their “special time” together was a secret and if it became known, Fletcher would hurt one of Daniel’s three younger brothers.
Daniel was 17 when the abuse ended and 25 when he went to the police.
What did the church do when it became aware of the police investigation?
The Archbishop of the diocese, now contrite, tipped off Fletcher and moved him to another parish – a bigger one.
“I am ready and willing to help the Royal Commission in any way I can,” Pat Feenan told me.
“And so is my courageous son. He’s brave. He was the first in the Maitland Archdiocese who had to testify in court. My Daniel had to go through the pain of the inquisition and the media and the reporting of the horrible details” she said.
“He is pretty happy. He knows he has played a part in this and he knows I fought really hard for this Royal Commission and for justice. He feels vindicated”, she said.
And let’s look at what Chrissy and Anthony Foster of Victoria have been through, along with their three daughters, two of whom were abused.
“Our girls were assaulted at school by the local Catholic priest,” Anthony Foster said.
“They were 5 years old and up, raped multiple times over many years. It went on for several years – we think about 5 years with Emma and with Katie probably about 3 or 4 years” he said.
Their abuser was Father Kevin O’Donnell who had been offending since 1946. When Emma was 14, she heard news that O’Donnell, now deceased, was convicted of the sexual assault of 13 others. It was a catastrophic moment for her. She began self-harming.
“We saw her with blood pouring out of her wrists,” said Anthony Foster, “taking heroin to dull the pain.”
Emma killed herself as she struggled to come to grips with the serial abuse she had suffered at O’Donnell’s hand. She was just 26 years old.
Her sister Katie became cognisant of the sexual abuse she had suffered when she turned 14. She told her parents but began binge drinking.
“She was at a friends house,” Anthony Foster told me, “she was drunk, crossed the road, and was hit by a car. She has severe brain injuries,” he said.
“She has pre-accident memory. But she can’t run her life. She has a five minute window on life.”
Katie and Emma Foster’s abuser is buried in the Catholic Church crypt at Melbourne Cemetery.
The Royal Commission will hear dozens, if not hundreds of stories like these.
The Catholic Church says it now has all the correct procedures in place to react appropriately and indeed to prevent further cases of abuse.
But Pat Feenan isn’t at all convinced.
She told me: “Wouldn’t we all like to wake up to a nation with no abuse. I’d like to do that but I don’t know if that can happens, especially by the clergy. I’ll wait and see. At least this is some hope.”
Pat Feenan is still a believer, but not a practicing believer.
“I don’t know what it means to be a practising Catholic but I rarely go to church. I’ve lost faith in the structures, the buildings, the whole Catholic set up. But I have spiritualty and its personal and my belief in God has never waivered,” she said.
Anthony Foster has lost not one daughter but two.
“We can’t do anything to bring Emma back or restore Katie’s life,” he told me. “But we can help the victims who are still alive and who need all the help they can get.
“At times like this we battle through. We know our experiences are an important part of what happened and in achieving something.
“But I’d rather have Emma and Katie back.”
If you, or someone you know, is suffering. The Number for Lifeline is: 13 11 14
If a life is in danger call: 000
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.