The Catholic conscience

Father Kevin Dillon wants the Catholic church to do more for victims of clerical abuse. Much more.

For six months a Victorian parliamentary inquiry has been hearing harrowing stories of sexual and emotional abuse inflicted upon children by once-trusted members of church and welfare groups whose denials, and/or legal obfuscation has only heightened the anger directed towards them. But the occasional bright light has shone during this descent in to the darkest depths of human behavior, including one from within the Catholic church, which has borne the brunt of criticism.

Father Dillon at Sunday mass.
“Time is up, the church has had more than a fair chance,” he told the inquiry. “The Melbourne Response and Towards Healing have lost all credibility and are beyond repair.” And, “Sadly but importantly, I have yet to hear one victim speak positively of their experience with either church process.” Onlookers in the gallery stood and applauded. The following day a letter writer to The Age suggested Father Dillon be next in line for Pope.Father Kevin Dillon has seldom sought publicity, but seldom has he declined an opportunity to present his views when asked, even if they’re likely to rankle the organisation he has represented for 44 years. As the parish priest for St Mary of the Angels Basilica in Geelong, one of Australia’s largest dioceses, his testimony to the inquiry – offered, not requested – was always going to attract attention.

Father Dillon saw the letter and said, laughing, “Well, I haven’t packed my bags, but my passport is still valid.” However, the suggestion is not without merit. When a venue was being sought for the Anam Cara respite care home in 2006, Father Dillon offered up – rent free – the church’ spacious Victorian presbytery. His new home was a more humble flat across the road. His phone and pager are on 24 hours per day, and phone calls from distressed people never go unanswered, some lasting up to six hours.

After listening to abuse victims who had later taken their own lives, Father Dillon said the decision to appear was imperative. “Once you’ve had that experience and attended a funeral, that is something that sears in to the very soul of people and can destroy them so easily.”

I met Father Dillon a week after his submission to the inquiry to ask if the church had responded. After all, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell and Melbourne’s Archbishop Dennis Hart aren’t two people who usually let criticism float by. So far, said Father Dillon, there’s been no response. “Disappointingly, nor has anyone further up the chain said, ‘Look…you’re in contact with probably more church-related abuse victims than any other priest, and clearly you have a different spin on this…[so] we’d like to hear more of what you’ve got to say and why you’re saying it.’ But that hasn’t happened.”

Father Dillon said he would almost have welcomed a backlash for the debate that would have generated. “Surely if you’re looking after victims you would allow and encourage some sort of internal support groups, particularly those that have overcome the demons these victims are trying to fight, to come together to give them hope and support. The church has done nothing of that and I think that has been quite reprehensible for any organisation that has been a messenger of the gospel of Jesus.”

Father Dillon at Sunday mass.
Now, sadly, with much experience dealing with abuse, Father Dillon asks, “We often use the word ‘unspeakable’ but what does that mean?” Fumbling for an answer I suggest it’s an old-fashioned term when such acts were inconceivable due to the deference people, including the media, then held for institutions such as the church. But, to Father Dillon, almost as “unspeakable” as the acts has been the Catholic church’s response when confronted with such allegations.It seems extraordinary that during his eight years at the seminary, the issue of abuse was raised not once to the then young Kevin Dillon and his fellow biblical students. “So, when in 1978 a priest was charged with these things, I thought, ‘how could that possibly be?’ That’s how naive I was, and most of my companions were. I look at that as a major systemic fault because when this has been in the church, not for 150 years but for 1500 years, and maybe forever, why wouldn’t we students of the priesthood be told this is something that happens within the context of a small but tragic percentage?”
Equally sad, said Father Dillon, is the church’s $75,000 cap on compensation payouts. In 2011 he criticised Cardinal Pell who said action was needed to prevent hefty legal costs and compensation payouts. Father Dillon points out, “I have yet to meet a victim for whom it was about money.” One victim, still scarred by abuse four decades ago and who attended the inquiry, told the Geelong parish priest, “I couldn’t get over how quickly the word ‘compensation’ was mentioned. I didn’t go there for money – I went there because I want my life back.”“It’s strange, particularly from a Catholic perspective,” he said, “for a church that puts a lot of emphasis on saying ‘sorry’ within a religious context that the practical saying ‘I’m sorry’ has had to be dragged out kicking and screaming. The degree of suffering that some people have had to go through is just quite awful. For any organisation, let alone a church, to have members responsible for that, and then exacerbating it by not responding compassionately enough, is something where, ‘As you reap, so shall you sow.’”

Father Dillon suspects the verdict of the state government inquiry will be heavily critical of the church’s processes, but he believes a lot of good has already resulted. “When people who haven’t had a voice and who’ve been badly damaged are given a voice, that’s got to ultimately do something.”

He said the real challenge for the church is to demonstrate humility then take action, as unpleasant as that me be. “I think it’s like lancing a boil – the muck is coming out and it is painful – but ultimately the church will be a better church. It may not be a stronger church for a while, and maybe weakness will do us good, but it will be more in the truer spirit of Jesus Christ as a result of this.”

Twenty-five years ago Father Dillon was asked what changes would he initiate if he became Pope. His response then still holds today. “I would have more bishops, and have every bishop serving as a parish priest so that they would answer the phone, get up in the middle of the night for a hospital call, not know who the next person coming through the door was, and conduct funerals, not just of the devout Catholics, but of the fringe people and the bikies and the suicide victims. If every bishop did that on a day-to-day basis…they wouldn’t lose touch. That said; how out of touch do you have to be to not to have practical compassion for a seven or eight-year old who was abused by someone they trusted? To me it’s not rocket science; it’s fundamental Christianity, fundamental humanity.”

Words and photographs by Ian Kenins.