Catholic Churches Set on Fire in Melbourne Uncover a Painful History

As the United States begins its Easter Triduum tonight, in Melbourne, Australia three Catholic churches have been set on fire in the last four days. On March 30th, 123-year-old St. James Church in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton was largely destroyed in what was judged a case of clear arson. The same morning in nearby St. Kilda East, St. Mary’s Church also suffered fire damage from arson. The following day, 151-year-old St. Mary’s Catholic Church in southeast suburb Dandenong took on $250,000 in damage from a fire lit on its altar and in a storeroom that took ninety minutes to stop.

Though no arrests have been made, the attacks were clearly not random. Each of the churches in question was once the home of a pedophile priest. British priest Father Ronald Pickering worked at St. Mary’s Church in St. Kilda East from 1966-1968, and at St. James Church from 1978-1993, at which point he fled back to Britain to escape prosecution for multiple counts of child sexual abuse. St. Mary’s was also the home in 1968 of Father Desmond Gannon, who was also convicted of multiple counts of child abuse.

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And St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dandenong had been the workplace of Fr. Kevin O’Donnell, who in 1995 pleaded guilty to assaulting 10 boys and two girls between the ages of 8 and 15. Local police referred to him as the “two-a-day man” for the number of acts of abuse he perpetrated.

Australia is entering the third year of a five year national royal commission looking into child sexual abuse. Hearings throughout the country have uncovered terrible crimes and cover-ups in churches, schools and other organizations. As a result of those hearings two weeks ago Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson, former president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, became the highest-ranking Catholic official in the world to be charged with concealing sexual abuse within the Church (a charge he strenuously denies). 

Reaction to the fires have been as complex as the underlying situation. Practicing Catholic and actress Rachel Griffiths, known in the States for her work on TV shows “Six Feet Under” and “Brothers & Sisters”, told local Australian radio that the news about St. James had left her “quite elated”: “It’s always been a difficult building for us to drive past, because there’s so much tragedy and complicated feelings. We’ve all attended funerals of boys that we now know were abused by Pickering.”  (At least five of the now-deceased Pickering’s victims killed themselves.)

Griffiths noted that Pickering had refused to let her family attend his church after her father left them because he didn’t want a divorced woman in the church. “I think that’s probably one thing that saved our family that so many of my friends’ brothers got involved with.” She hopes that the fire might bring healing to the many in that community who have suffered. 

Meanwhile Father Declan O’Brien, pastor to some 3,000 parishioners in Dandenong, acknowledged understanding why people would be angry. He told local radio, “I’m trying my best to hold onto the Christian principle of forgiveness and at the moment as a human being, it’s very hard to do that.”

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