Catholics Reclaim a Voice on Abuse

By Barney Zwartz
The Age [Australia]
June 29, 2003

Claiming the problem of sexual abuse by priests is as bad in Australia as the US, a meeting in Melbourne on Friday night formed the first Australian branch of the influential lay Catholic lobby group Voice of the Faithful.

A second branch will be launched in Sydney today.

Voice of the Faithful began 18 months ago in an impromptu meeting of 28 parishioners of a Boston church, appalled by the way bishops concealed abuse.

Today it has more than 35,000 members in 21 countries and the two new groups bring the total of affiliates to 183.

About 100 people attended the meeting in St Mary's College at the University of Melbourne. They included victims of abuse, counsellors, advocacy groups, teachers, people in religious orders, and lay Catholics. They came from as far as Brisbane and Adelaide, where further affiliates may open soon.

"The facts are grim," Voice's president, Professor Jim Post, told the meeting.

He said credible allegations had been made in Australia against several hundred priests by more than 1300 victims, and this figure was understated. Pro rata, it was a bad as the United States.

"What choices do we have?" he said. "First, leave the church, and many people have. But we want to stay and fight for our moral integrity.

"Second, silent assent. Just be good, quiet Catholics, sit in our pews, say our prayers, put money in the basket when it comes by and don't make waves. But the situation won't get better on its own.

"The only thing left is to speak up. We're trying to achieve a church that would make Jesus smile."

The organisation has three goals: to support survivors of abuse, to support priests of integrity and to work for change in the church, especially giving lay people a greater role.

A survivor of multiple abuse, "David", told the meeting his experience with the Melbourne archdiocese had made him suicidal.

"They just don't get it," he said. "The hierarchy sees us as trouble.

"Tonight for me is the end of being alone and the beginning of being able to go back into the church."

Many in the audience spoke of their own experiences, and the pain and anger were palpable.

The regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful Australia, Adrian Farrell, said the next step would begin at a meeting at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Cheltenham on August 11.

Working groups would be formed for survivor support, priest support, protection of children, renewal in the church, education, membership, technology and finance.

Bishop Christopher Prowse told The Sunday Age the Melbourne archdiocese welcomed the new group, and that the Vicar-General, Monsignor Les Tomlinson, had met Professor Post last week.

"The Catholic Church is very open to hear from any discussion from Dr Post's visit," Bishop Prowse said.

"There is no question that we are open to learn from their experience. But the experience in the US is quite different from here, because we have dealt with it differently. We were one of the first in the world to set up protocols."


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