SYDNEY (Reuters) - Victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and brothers in Australia, like Jose Respall who still vividly recalls being fondled at age 11, are calling on Pope Benedict to apologize when he arrives in Sydney on Sunday.
“I was touched in the groin and inside of my thighs,” said 45-year-old Respall, recalling how a Marist brother teacher abused him and his classmates in a Sydney school in 1974.
“He was blatantly open, he would tuck your shirt in, in the playground. Everybody knew about what was going on yet nothing was done,” Respall told Reuters in an interview on Monday.
Respall said some of his school friends wrote swear words on the inside of their thighs, hoping the brother would be offended and not molest them.
“As you go through life you don’t want to remember these things. It’s an horrific experience to be touched and molested at a very young age,” said Respall.
Pope Benedict confronted the issue of sexual abuse in the church during a visit to Washington in April, meeting victims and vowing to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood.
Broken Rites, which represents abuse victims in Australia, has a list of 107 convictions for church abuse, but says the real number of cases is far greater as only a handful go to court.
Broken Rites says the Pope, who will be in Sydney to attend the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day from July 15-20, should offer a “proper apology, not just a motherhood statement ... to a group of victims of church sexual abuse.”
Australia’s Cardinal George Pell says he is sure the Pope will address the issue of sexual abuse, but he has stopped short of revealing whether Pope Benedict will apologize to victims.
“The fact the bishops and religious leaders in Australia have already apologized, quite a number of times, these symbols do contribute to healing,” Pell told Reuters.
“The Pope handled the issue well in the United States. I hope and pray, and anticipate, that he will handle the issue appropriately here,” he said.
Marist Brother Ross Murrin, 52, who molested Respall and others, was jailed in March after pleaded guilty to 17 charges of sexual abuse stretching over 10 years.
“He is a predator. He is a Pied Piper of pedophiles as far as I am concerned,” said Respall, who admits to a sense of relief and justice now Murrin is behind bars. But Respall believes the healing process also requires the Pope to apologize.
“The significance of someone acknowledging there was a wrong is very important. When the prime minister apologized to the aboriginal people (for past abuse) there was great sigh of relief,” said Respall.
“He (the Pope) is a person of great integrity, he should do something about this situation,” he added.
Broken Rites says it will not protest the papal visit but some abuse victims plan to take to the streets calling for an apology, while other people will stage protests against church doctrine by handing out condoms to young pilgrims.
Police have been given extra anti-protest powers to arrest and fine people A$5,5000 (US$5,300) if they annoy or disturb the estimated 500,000 young pilgrims. The laws have the potential to make wearing a T-shirt with an anti-Catholic message a crime.
“There is a lot of good in what the Catholic Church does, but you have these apples in the barrel and they going to fester. Don’t let it last another century before you do something,” said Respall.
“This has nothing to do with what God has to say, this is what men and women have done.”
Some leading Catholics in Australia hope Pope Benedict’s first visit to Australia will not be dominated by sexual abuse, but instead be used to re-energize the church.
Mainstream churches such as the Catholic and Anglican churches struggle to attract worshippers in Australia, unlike small evangelical churches and Buddhism, the fastest growth faith in Australia.
The majority of Australians consider themselves religious but say faith does not play a big part in their life, according to a survey which showed few regularly pray or visit church.
Respall said he lost his faith after being abused and only now, some 28 years later, has started attending Sunday mass.
“I felt betrayed,” he said. “In my victim impact statement I said I wish that God forgives me for my loss of faith.”
National politician Tony Abbott, a staunch Catholic who once studied to be a priest, has called on the Pope to reach out to Australia’s disillusioned Catholics.
Some 5 million Australians describe themselves as Catholic, but less than one million attend Sunday mass, according to a 2001 census. Today that number might be around 100,000, Abbott said.
If Pope Benedict “leaves Sydney without tackling the malaise of the church, people will feel cheated and World Youth Day will have been a failure,” Abbott wrote in a recent newsmagazine.
“I think what people are wanting, are hoping for, from this visit is a sense that this is a Pope who speaks our language ... who appreciates it is not an age that is naturally given to religious faith,” he said.