‘Unfinished business’: Ballarat abuse survivor to tie a ribbon at St Mary’s before George Pell funeral

Paul Auchettl says the cathedral should not cut ribbons down as they are a powerful voice for people who were silenced

When the Ballarat abuse survivor Paul Auchettl flies to Sydney to tie ribbons to the fence outside St Mary’s Cathedral ahead of George Pell’s funeral, he’ll be thinking of a promise the late cardinal made to him last time they met. In 2016, Auchettl flew to Rome as part of a group of survivors who met with Pell during his evidence to the child abuse royal commission.

Auchettl wanted to make Pell understand the profound damage the church’s failings had caused to their home town of Ballarat. In their private meeting, Auchettl says, Pell promised to do something to help.

Nothing changed. Ballarat, the epicentre of the nation’s clergy abuse crisis, still suffers an enduring trauma, one that imprints itself through suicide, shame and anger.

“To me it’s unfinished business,” Auchettl says. “So I’m going to tie ribbons on the fence for the people who are too sick to be there, who have died and can’t be there, and for families who are too angry to be there. I’d like to tie ribbons for them.”

In the lead-up to Pell’s funeral at Sydney’s St Mary’s next week, survivors and their supporters have been visiting the cathedral to leave ribbons on its fence, emulating the approach taken at St Patrick’s in Ballarat.

Church staff have been cutting them down. The response has prompted much criticism from survivors and their supporters, who have described the church’s actions as “petty” and another example of its decision to protect the Catholic brand at the expense of survivors.

“In this sense, ribbons are sacred, they should not be cut down or taken,” Auchettl says.

“If you go up to someone who’s tying a ribbon, they’ll tell you exactly why they’re doing it: the ribbons have become a powerful voice for people who were silenced for so long.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful at George’s funeral, I want him to have a peaceful service. But I want to alert people that there is this unfinished business that he was still yet to do and that, in a sense, he has failed.”

Auchettl attended St Alipius primary school and was molested by his year six teacher, the notorious paedophile Christian Brother Robert Best.

Auchettl’s younger brother Peter was also abused and took his own life more than a decade ago.

He wants the church to recognise that clergy abuse and related suicides have created secondary victims – usually family members.

“We can’t even talk about this, it’s taboo, it’s too difficult, people are so angry. Yet this is what happens in this sorry story, we’re shut down,” he says. “The ribbons become a way of saying ‘we need to know about these stories’.”

Loud Fence, the group which first advocated placing ribbons at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Ballarat, says it is damaging for survivors to have ribbons removed.

“We tend to say now that every ribbon has a voice, and I feel that,” the group’s founder, Maureen Hatcher, said last week.

“Once you tie a ribbon to the fence, that’s what it becomes. It becomes a symbol of a survivor or a victim, and it’s their voice, whether they’ve been able to speak out or not, it’s there.”

Simon Hunt, the satirist sometimes known as Pauline Pantsdown, has been tying ribbons to the St Mary’s fence for more than a week and has used his social media following to encourage others to do the same.

Asked on Wednesday whether church staff were continuing to remove the ribbons, he said: “Every time. I’ve only been there once when there was still anything major left. It’s been 10 days and I’ve been there on eight of those days. Sometimes there’s a couple of scraps left and other times it’s just completely cleaned.”

The Guardian contacted the archdiocese of Sydney and St Mary’s for comment.

• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 802 9999. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html


Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp

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