Kathleen McCormack on exposing sex abuse in Church

• Kathleen's tireless work recognised by Vatican

Kathleen McCormack has retired from the Wollongong Catholic welfare agency she established 35 years ago. She spoke to GEMMA KHAICY about what she witnessed through her work.

The Church's culture of silence muted their voices, but the pain of sexual abuse victims burned until it couldn't be contained.

When CatholicCare's Kathleen McCormack heard victims' stories, she went straight to the police demanding justice.

"Sexual abuse in general was a hidden culture, no one talked about it," she says.

"A number of parents abused their children too, and in those days people didn't believe or support you."

In the early to mid-1990s, CatholicCare advocated for victims of sexual abuse in the Church and asked clergy to address the problem.

'I did question my faith. People are capable of terrible things, but you have to hope things will change.'

At times Kathleen felt alone on her mission to break the silence surrounding abuse.

"I was one of the people who exposed the sexual abuse in the Church and I was left isolated," she says.

Although Bishop William Murray found the allegations against clergy difficult to comprehend, he supported Kathleen's work.

It was other clergy and lay Catholics who became stand-offish and refused to believe their beloved priests had committed despicable crimes, she says.

"Sexual abuse splits the community," she says.

"Some of the most charismatic priests who did wonderful things for the community would have this other side to them, doing evil things - some people just couldn't believe it."

After 35 years at the helm of CatholicCare, the founder and director is retiring.

Hearing victims' stories and trying to gain justice has been the hardest part of her work.

"I did question my faith," she says. "People are capable of terrible things. But you have to hope things will change, and I think the royal commission [Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse] will change things. People have become more aware - you have to create a culture of safety for children."

Due to CatholicCare's work and police investigations, guilty Illawarra priests were jailed, she says.

Kathleen says the organisation's staff must remain alert, because intruders will always try to infiltrate the system. She praises those within the Church who worked to expel the stain of sexual abuse - including Bishop Philip Wilson, who employed sexual-crimes expert Ray Wyre in the late '90s to educate all employees within Catholic organisations in the Wollongong diocese on how to spot child sexual abuse and the grooming behaviours of paedophiles.

"Some of the bishops and priests I've worked with have been an inspiration," she says. "I think we have to earn our respect back.

"The Catholic Church is an amazing body - it's the biggest employer in Australia in areas of health, education and welfare."

The 65-year-old switched from teaching to welfare work in the '70s after working with socially handicapped girls at the Good Samaritan Training Centre in Sydney.

"I saw how children were falling through the cracks," she says. "The girls were social delinquents before the courts, and they went there instead of the Parramatta Girl's Home."

She blames parental abuse or neglect for most of the girls' problems.

As a welfare worker, Kathleen also helped broken families, single mothers, the poor, refugees and people with disabilities - regardless of their creed or religion.

"I've learnt more from people than I've done for them," she says.

An unlikely figure - a high-profile prostitute - won Kathleen's admiration in the early '80s. When the woman lost custody of her child, she turned to CatholicCare. After three years of support, studying and changing her lifestyle, she had her then-eight-year-old daughter returned to her care.

"We never tell people what to do, but she knew the lifestyle she led meant she wouldn't be allowed access to her child," Kathleen says.

"People would fancy her lifestyle, mixing with all the big players in Sydney, and the money. But it meant nothing to her, she was prepared to sacrifice it all.

"I admire her courage and resilience."

Helping people build their self-respect and esteem is rewarding, she says.

Kathleen often held her tongue and focused on empowering clients to make their own decisions.

It is better to let people decide their actions than foist your plan on them, because then they resent you if decisions turn awry, she says.

"Once people meet who they are and discover their resources, they can build on that," she says.

"You just have to take people through all their options, and they decide which path to choose."

For Kathleen, CatholicCare is about living the Gospel rather than preaching through words.

"I think the organisation is healthy, it has a great team and we just received a whole lot more funding," she says.

"I love it, but when you love something you love it into freedom."

Over time, CatholicCare has become part of every diocese in Australia.

Employing "wonderful" staff and creating a credible organisation has been one of her biggest achievements, she says.

Kathleen's gratitude for her peers runs deep.

She passed up a chance to meet Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to Sydney for World Youth Day because she attended her friend's funeral.

"[My friend] was the first volunteer for CatholicCare," she says.

"Those volunteers worked for nothing for years, they were the foundation of it."

Kathleen views her time at CatholicCare as a commitment rather than a career.

She has never married, partly due to the demands of her work, but has been passionate in her pursuits.

"One thing I'm very proud of is the family-friendly environment here," she says. "We brought in maternity leave a long time before the government entertained it."

Now the retiree looks forward to spending more time with her nieces and nephews, travelling and volunteering with refugees.

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