Australian media focus: will Pope apologize for abuse?


Sydney, Jul. 16, 2008 ( - With Pope Benedict XVI due to make his first appearance at the World Youth Day (WYD) celebration in Sydney on Thursday, the chief spokesman for the Vatican has done his best to tone down expectations that the Holy Father will issue an apology for sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

In an exchange with reporters who accompanied him on the flight to Australia, Pope Benedict said that he would address the sex-abuse issue during his stay there, and call for proper training of priests and reconciliation with victims. "I think this is the essential content of what the word 'apologize' means," the Pope had said.

But in Australia, media reports have focused intensively on the question of whether the Pontiff will make an explicit apology for the failures of Church leaders to curtail past sexual abuse. Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, urged reporters not to dwell on that specific word.

Referring back to the Pope's in-flight comments, Father Lombardi said: "I do not recall that he declared that he would make an apology." The Pope said that he would speak about sexual abuse, and would discuss how the Church should "prevent, heal, and reconcile," the Vatican spokesman observed.

Rather than expecting the Pope's comments to take a particular form, Father Lombardi told reporters, "I advise you to listen to what the Pope says." The comments from the papal spokesman came as the father of a family devastated by sexual abuse pressed his own campaign for a papal apology. Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were molested by a priest, has been a prominent figure in the Australian media, demanding a meeting with the Holy Father and an explicit apology.

Foster's daughters were sexually abused by Father Kevin O'Donnell, a priest who died in prison in 1997 after being convicted of other sexual assaults. One daughter later committed suicide; another requires constant medical care because of an alcohol-related automobile accident. Foster has said that Church leaders "should be coming to us to beg our forgiveness."

In 1998, then-Archbishop George Pell of Melbourne issued an apology to the Foster family, and an offer of compensation for the family's troubles. But Anthony Foster rejected that offer, and has continued his campaign-- first in the Australian courts, and now in the media-- for an apology he considers adequate.

The debate over a papal apology flared up again on July 15 when the bishop who is serving as chief organizer for World Youth Day made a televised statement that struck many listeners as insensitive toward sex-abuse victims. Bishop Anthony Fisher, a Sydney auxiliary, said that reporters should pay attention to the excitement and enthusiasm of young people attending World Youth Day, "rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds."

Anthony Foster cited the bishop's remark as further evidence of the need for a change in the attitudes of Church leaders. The comment was "unbelievable, almost," he told reporters. "It's astounding and if I hadn't heard his voice say it, I think I wouldn't have believed it."