SYDNEY : The scandal over child sex abuse by Catholic priests flared again on Wednesday as Pope Benedict XVI prepared to take centre stage at the world’s biggest Christian festival in Sydney.
While more than 200,000 young pilgrims attended beach concerts, barbecues and religious classes, the head of the church in Australia – Cardinal George Pell – faced a threat of confrontation by the parents of two victims of abuse.
The pilgrims are in Sydney for World Youth Day celebrations, which will be led by the pope from Thursday at the end of his four-day holiday at a retreat on Sydney’s outskirts.
But the scandal over sex abuse by corrupt clergymen has partly overshadowed the festival, despite the pope’s pledge to apologise to victims as he did in the United States in April.
The father of two girls abused by a Melbourne priest, one of whom committed suicide, has said he and his wife would travel back to Australia from Europe within the next few days for a confrontation.
Anthony Foster told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. he would not accept an apology unless the pontiff also changed the way the church and its lawyers dealt with victims of sex abuse.
“I want them to set up a system which provides lifetime help to victims, a system where they beg forgiveness of the victims,” he said.
Foster said he planned to make a public statement when he arrived and would demand a response from the pope and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell.
He said he hoped the pope would meet him to hear his demands for the church to adopt a new approach to the victims of abuse.
“I should not have to try to see them. They should be coming to us to beg our forgiveness,” he said.
Foster’s daughter Emma, 26, committed suicide this year after struggling to deal with abuse by a priest while she was at primary school.
Her sister Katie was also abused and turned to alcohol in her teens before being left brain-damaged after being hit by a car while drunk, the broadcaster reported.
The priest involved, Father Kevin O’Donnell, died in 1997 after serving time in jail for multiple sex offences, but the Fosters had to fight an eight-year legal battle for compensation from the church for the abuse, ABC said.
World Youth Day coordinator Bishop Anthony Fisher told reporters at a regular briefing that most people were focusing on the positive aspects of World Youth Day “rather than dwelling crankily as a few people are doing on old wounds”.
But Pell later described the story of Emma Foster as “tragic”, saying he apologised to her and her family in 1998.
“I met with her parents. We offered them some financial help. We also offered them counselling,” he told reporters.
Broken Rites, a support group for victims of church-related sexual abuse, says that 107 Catholic priests and religious brothers have been sentenced in Australian courts on sex charges.
It accuses the church of hypocrisy by spending millions on World Youth Day when sex abuse victims are paid just 25,000 Australian dollars (23,500 US dollars) on average as compensation.
The pope, who has not announced when he will address the issue during his visit, was due to leave his semi-rural retreat for St Mary’s Cathedral House in central Sydney later Wednesday.
The 81-year-old pontiff, who has been recovering from jet-lag after the 20-hour flight from Rome, will make his formal arrival in Sydney in a 14-vessel “boat-a-cade” on the harbour on Thursday.
He is expected to be welcomed by crowds on spectator craft and harbour side vantage points before disembarking and addressing a gathering of around 100,000 pilgrims at Darling Harbour.
He will then take to his more traditional “Popemobile” for a tour of the city streets, which are expected to be lined with up to half a million people, organisers say.
Many streets were closed Wednesday and local residents were warned to stay out of the city, dominated by a flood of pilgrims from around the world.
Channel News Asia