A light rises in the darkness for the upright


9 Feb 2017

The response to this week’s psalm is ‘A light rises in the darkness for the upright’. Listening to the media and our church leaders in recent days, we know that there is plenty of darkness ahead for our Church in the weeks ahead with the Royal Commission’s hearings into the Catholic Church.

We’re told that the statistics will be terrible and we expect that some of our church leaders will appear, looking stunned and helpless. This morning, I think we need to reflect on these stark realities in the light of the scriptures. And this can be done only by holding the victims clearly in focus, not as statistics or as hard cases, but as individuals, erstwhile vulnerable members of our church community, citizens able to walk tall again because they have been heard, believed and affirmed.

Jesus assures us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But here we are with the world’s light shining on us, and with the tang and zest of our joyful and merciful proclamation of the Good News muted by our shame and confusion. Salt without taste is good for nothing. ‘It can only be thrown out to be trampled underfoot by men.’ It’s only by welcoming that spotlight (even with the usual sporadic Aussie doses of anti-Catholicism) that we will once again be able to be a light and a help for those who are searching in the dark and for those who are vulnerable.

In the weeks ahead, as we hear the statistics and see the faces of our church leaders, let’s be ever mindful of the faces, the voices, and the pleas of the victims. Let me recall the story of two of those victims who have made a deep impression on me through their testimony at the royal commission.

Julie Stewart was a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. She was already a most vulnerable child when she first entered the confessional of the weird and depraved Fr Searson as a Grade 3 student in the local parish school at Doveton in the Melbourne Archdiocese. She had been regularly abused by a family member for over three years between the ages of 5 and 8.

As she told the royal commission, ‘One day, when I was about eight, my mother asked me “Is anyone hurting you?” I told my mother I had been abused by the family member. She told me she would speak to my father about it. Later that evening my father asked me if I had been abused by the family member. I told him I had. He said to me “You should have known better”. I said “Yes, Dad. Sorry.”’

Imagine then presenting with the rest of the class in confession with a priest who had already displayed affection to her in the playground. Over the next couple of years when attending confession with her class mates, Fr Searson became increasingly abusive towards her. Like many paedophiles, Searson had an eye for the vulnerable child, at a time when the institution did not. Ultimately Julie ran from the confessional and the principal Mr Graeme Sleeman did all he could to get rid of Fr Searson. It was Mr Sleeman, not Fr Searson who lost his job.

Julie Stewart concluded her opening statement to the commission with these words:

I still cry for the little girl I once was. The little girl that never got to be a normal little girl, doing all the things that little girls should do. The little girl who always just wanted to fit in, but always felt like a weirdo, like a problem. Nothing can ever give that back to me. It is a life sentence, and every day I make a choice to keep going.

It is important to me to tell my story now, because I want peace for myself. I want peace for Mr Sleeman [the school principal who fought to have the dreadful abuser Fr Searson dismissed]. I’ve got kids and I want to be a voice. I want people to know that this happened. I’m not ashamed anymore, and I no longer blame myself. I will no longer be a victim. My name is Julie Stewart.
We need to express our gratitude as well as our sorrow to those like Julie Stewart who have courageously come forward helping us all to understand, and reminding us what we truly profess in the name of Christ. In the words of Isaiah, the Lord tells us:

Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you.

Back then, Julie Stewart and Graeme Sleeman counted themselves as members of our Church. They were ‘our own’. Julie acknowledged that there were a number of fine teachers in the Church community who did not turn their backs, who comforted and supported her. But the culture and structures of our Church and the prevailing public ethos resulted in Julie and Graeme experiencing a turning of the back, a quenching of the light and a vapid loss of taste in the salt.

I also think of Peter Blenkiron who appeared before the Royal Commission at the Ballarat hearing. He was abused at 11. It took 26 years for the damage in his life to boil over and for him to tell others and to seek help.

But then he looked out for his mates expending so much energy in helping other victims in need. He was instrumental in setting up a support group for the victims of child sexual abuse in Ballarat. He told the commission, ‘We normally met in a cafe. We didn’t talk about the abuse, but I feel that we started to normalise it – the effects of the abuse. Over time, this group got bigger.’ I was privileged a while ago to go to Ballarat and to meet with Peter and one of his colleagues at that café where his art is now on display and where the community support is palpable. He told the commission:

To hear from people that have been through it and have recovered is a massive gift, to know that somebody can get through those darkest of darkest times, because it gets worse before it gets better. I hope that, in telling my story, other people might be assisted, although I am by no means healed. It’s not from lack of trying. I think that the key points are not to be isolated, but to have available professional counseling assistance and community support. I was at my worst when I was alone in my own private hell. I believe I was most at risk of suicide when I was isolated rather than connected and unable to understand what was going on by myself. I hope that, by telling my story, others might reach out for help, even if they are okay for the moment, just on the off-chance it may help to prevent disaster in the future.

Up the street from the café is the Ballarat Cathedral with thousands of ribbons tied to the church fence as a reminder of all that has gone on. How might the colour of those ribbons be celebrated again inside our Church? How might the warmth and support of that café be replicated within our Church? Once again Isaiah put it well with the Lord proclaiming:

If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted, your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows become like noon.

We need to be more like Paul in today’s second reading from 2 Corinthians:

I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

May the spirit and power of God be with us in the darkness in these days ahead so that once again our light will rise in the darkness and our shadows become like noon. We remember that Julie Stewart and Peter Blenkiron both experienced the darkest of nights contemplating suicide. They have now shone a light for others. They have shone a light for us who remain members of a broken Church which has no other boast than the Lord who offers justice, love and mercy. God help us all in the weeks ahead.

Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. The Royal Commission has invited him to participate in a panel discussion on Thursday because he has ‘published in the area of the Sacrament of Reconciliation’. The panel will discuss: ‘To what extent has the operation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions or affected the institutional response to this abuse?’
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