‘Not a priest for the survivors’: Melbourne families grapple with Pell’s legacy

As the late Cardinal George Pell was laid to rest in Sydney, child sex abuse advocate Chrissie Foster struggled to reconcile the eulogies with her memories of the man she once asked for help.

Foster, who went to Pell with her husband Anthony when they discovered their two young daughters were being raped by parish priest Kevin O’Donnell, said the divisive cardinal was hardly a martyr or a saint.

Chrissie Foster and a group of other parents tied ribbons on the fence of Sacred Heart Church in Oakleigh.Credit:Joe Armao

“The problem I have is people from on high like [former prime minister Tony] Abbott saying he’s like a saint, and someone else said he was martyred like Jesus was,” she said.

“They obviously have not been to one royal commission session or read one of their reports on George Pell,” Foster said. “Go to the funeral, yes, but don’t say those things. It’s just so not true.”

Abbott posted a eulogy online following Pell’s death on January 10 where he described the clergyman as a “saint for our times” and his incarceration on historic child sex charges as a modern form of crucifixion.

Foster was among family members and supporters of child abuse survivors who embraced each other in an Oakleigh street on Thursday morning, hundreds of kilometres away from the grandiose halls of St Mary’s in Sydney where Pell’s funeral took place.

A car driving by honked in support as the group tied dozens of colourful ribbons and a sign emblazoned with the words “crime scene” to the fence of Sacred Heart Church to remember the children O’Donnell abused there in the 1990s and protest Pell’s inaction over paedophile priests under his watch.

Pell was the bishop supervising the parish at the time and addressed the parents at the Sacred Heart Primary School hall when the allegations of serial child abuse against O’Donnell became public.

Barney Wursthorn, whose daughters attended school with the Foster girls, remembered Pell sitting on the stage of the school hall as he addressed concerned parents about the allegations against O’Donnell. He said the clergyman was in damage control.

“I felt he had an incredibly arrogant attitude, no empathy for any other parents. Where there’s smoke there was a bloody raging inferno and he had no feeling or empathy for that,” he said.

At St Patrick’s Cathedral, in the Melbourne CBD, where Pell was archbishop from 1996 to 2001, Brian Cherrie was among a small group of supporters also honouring survivors with ribbons.

“Pell wasn’t a priest for the survivors, he was the priest to save the Catholic Church money,” he told The Age. “This was a chance to speak out for people who are too old or too scared or cast away. This is for everyone.”

Former Oakleigh MP Ann Barker, who was among the first to campaign for a national inquiry into the abuse of children by the clergy, said the day of Pell’s funeral was about remembering the survivors of abuse.

“We need to remember this hasn’t gone away. It’s not finished. It’s not over. And it won’t be over until everybody who is entitled to it gets redress and gets the support that they need to live their lives.”

Supporters gather outside Sacred Heart Church in Oakleigh. Credit:Joe Armao

Foster’s daughters, Emma and Katie, were among the victims repeatedly abused by O’Donnell in primary school. Emma later took her own life and Katie was left in a wheelchair after being hit by a car.

O’Donnell, who was accused of abusing numerous children between 1944 and 1992, died in March 1997, about four months after his release from prison.

Foster said the church was yet to fully accept responsibility for the damage it had caused to survivors and compared her family’s attempts for justice to “getting blood out of a stone”.

The Fosters were offered $50,000 by the archdiocese under its Melbourne Response redress scheme as compensation for the abuse, but the family rejected the offer, taking the church to court instead. They settled before judgment for $450,000 for Emma plus compensation for Katie and costs.

“Both my daughters were raped in there, sexually assaulted,” she said. “What are we supposed to do with it? Say nothing?

Jenni Di Trani, Jeanette Richardson John Lawrance, Helen Dawson and Brian Cherrie tie ribbons to the fence outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.Credit:Paul Rovere

“We’ve had to fight from way back in 1996 to open the eyes of people, especially Catholics who have gone through the education like myself. You don’t ask questions, you don’t see these things.”

Pell was convicted of sexually assaulting two teenage choirboys in 2018 and spent more than 400 days in prison. However, the conviction was overturned by the High Court in 2020 after a full bench found the evidence against the cardinal could not support a guilty verdict.

Support is available from the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Crisis support is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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