The week-long World Youth Day (WYD) events in Sydney were a huge success, said the organisers, but for the victims of Catholic priest sex abuses, the Papal apology was not enough.
An estimated 400,000 people packed the Randwick Race Course as the German Pontiff made his final appearance for the July 20 Sunday Mass.
It became the largest Catholic Mass in Australia’s history, attended by 26 cardinals and 420 bishops, and accompanied by a 300-strong choir and an 80-piece orchestra.
The grand finale concluded a week of events that aimed to rekindle the faith of young Catholics from around the world. Over 125,000 pilgrims besieged Sydney, spreading the word of God and transforming the city into a fun-filled, vibrant party.
Most travelled thousands of miles just to get a second-long glimpse of the Pope, who made his first visit to Australia since being appointed the head of the Catholic Church in 1995.
However, for those who fell victim to sexual abuse by priests, Pope Benedict’s visit carried another meaning.
“There was a deep need for the victims that the Pope give an apology that was meaningful,” said Christine MacIsaac, President of the Broken Rites support network.
Mrs MacIsaac welcomed the historic Papal apology, delivered on July 19 at St Mary’s Cathedral, but said it failed to re-instate trust in the Catholic Church.
“To some degree those words were very meaningful when that apology finally came…[but] it was almost like an afterthought. It’s that sort of behaviour [that shows] that they are trying to protect themselves all the time,” she said.
Many in Australia likened the historic apology to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry” speech in February, when the Prime Minister apologised to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families in the 1930s. What followed were years of sexual and physical abuse that left many psychologically scarred.
However, unlike Mr Rudd’s apology, the Catholic Church lacked sincerity, believed Mrs MacIsaac. She also expressed disappointment at the private meeting Pope Benedict held with just three of the victims on Monday, saying that neither Broken Rites nor any of the other victims were ever notified of this meeting.
“The message today was still of secrecy, one of cover-up and one where they don’t want to acknowledge the extent of what has happened. They still want to sweep this issue under the carpet.”
“They hand-picked victims who they know are not going to complain about what they’ve been through.”
Broken Rites, a Melbourne-based network for victims of church-related sexual abuse, has received “thousands and thousands” of calls, says Mrs MacIsaac. Over the past decade, the group has lobbied for the conviction of 107 brothers and priests, many of whom were repeat offenders.
Of all the victims who contacted Broken Rites, more than half were males and were sexually assaulted in their childhood. Some remained silent for decades before speaking out about their experiences.
One case details the story of Father Terrence Pidoto, who was protected by his superiors and colleagues for over 25 years in the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese.
The priest assaulted young boys, performing oral and anal sex. All of the crimes took place on the premises of Melbourne’s Corpus Christi College, where the church trains its priests for all the Catholic dioceses in Victoria and Tasmania.
Father Pidoto was charged in July 2007 with 22 offences against seven boys and received a sentence of seven years and three months in jail.
Among those most vocal about the paedophilic behaviour has been the father of two Melbourne girls, both raped by a priest in their childhood. One of the girls committed suicide earlier this year, aged 26.
“Victims I’m sure would feel very disheartened by this and I’m sure that as the weeks go by, they won’t feel that there was ever a real apology ever given,” Anthony Foster said to the ABC, while insisting that a personal apology by the Pope to the victims would have been more effective.
Mrs MacIsaac agrees. She believes the Church needs to own up to the “terrible amount of sexual abuse that was committed” and reach out to the people.
“They hide from it and don’t face up to reality,” she says.