Kathleen McPhillips first met Anthony and Chrissie Foster at one of the first child sex abuse royal commission hearings in 2014. She was attending in her capacity as a social scientist undertaking field work for her research project The Catholic Church at the Royal Commission. Over the years she had many conversations with the Fosters, sharing publications with them and listening to their analysis of the various public hearings and the response by the Catholic Church.
Today in Melbourne a state funeral is being held for Anthony Foster, who died unexpectedly 12 days ago. His death sent shockwaves around the country and indeed the world. Many people who had known and relied on Anthony’s wise counsel and hard work felt devastated and saddened.
Anthony and his wife Chrissie have been in the spotlight in relation to child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church for more than 20 years.
Their story is a tragic one. The parents sent their three girls to the local Catholic primary school in Oakleigh, a suburb in Melbourne. They had no idea that the parish priest, Kevin O’Donnell, was a serial sexual abuser of children for 50 years between 1942 and 1992.
When Emma and Katie Foster were only five and six years old they were sexually assaulted by O’Donnell over several years, with catastrophic impacts. After years of struggling with the impact of the sexual abuse, Emma died following a drug overdose at 26, and her sister Katie suffered serious injuries in a car accident. She is now disabled and requires round-the-clock care.
When the girls were exposed to this abuse, church authorities already knew that O’Donnell was an offender – indeed, had known since 1958 – but they failed to alert parents and teachers, and remove him from contact with children. They also failed to remove him from the priesthood – even while in jail.
From the mid-1990s, the Fosters began their long struggle for justice for their daughters. Their fight took them from local church authorities to the most senior church leaders in Australia and Rome.
When they found inadequate answers and closed doors, they kept pushing. They sought redress for their family first through the Melbourne Response, the protocol set up to investigate complaints of child sexual abuse. They rejected the church offer and the requirement to sign a non-disclosure statement, and in 2002 took the church to court where, after a ten-year fight, they eventually won.
Many people would have been overwhelmed by the consequences of this tragedy and rightly retired in grief. Instead, Anthony and Chrissie Foster stepped up to a national platform to challenge the ways in which church authorities managed complaints of child sexual abuse.
They became role models for other survivors and their families, where victims were commonly dealing with the stigma associated with disclosing sexual abuse and further trauma from an inadequate response by the church. They were absolutely steadfast in their commitment to getting to the truth of what happened, and they confronted church and civil authorities with forthright honesty and integrity.
Anthony frequently spoke to the media and was always articulate, eloquent and measured. He could see through the rhetoric and spin of church platitudes and was never intimidated by bureaucrats or bishops. He famously took on Cardinal George Pell on many occasions, and together with Chrissie travelled to Rome in February 2016 to hear Pell give evidence before the royal commission.
In 2010, Chrissie Foster, together with journalist Paul Kennedy, wrote Hell on the Way to Heaven, which documented their struggle with church authorities for information and justice.
It was this book, together with strong lobbying from survivors and their supporters, that convinced the Victorian parliament to open an independent inquiry into clerical child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The report and recommendations are now well known and are contributing to making schools safer places for children.
Anthony and Chrissie Foster came to national attention for all the wrong reasons, but along the way their work has been instrumental in transforming the way in which state governments, NGOs and the Catholic Church dealt with child sexual abuse. Without their determination and hard work it is likely that the Victoria parliamentary inquiry and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse would not have happened as soon as they did.
Anthony’s keen eye for detail and his clarity of the evil perpetrated in the systematic institutional abuse of children was often the object of media analysis. Thankfully, we have a record of his extended interviews (for example see Four Corners).
Chrissie Foster was the first person through the doors of the courtroom when the royal commission opened in Melbourne on April 3, 2013, and together they attended many of the hearings and roundtables, such was their belief in the importance of the royal commission. They gave evidence of their own terrible experience at the royal commission hearing in Melbourne in August 2014.
They were wonderful models of grace and dignity. Anthony was a man of quiet determination, deep intelligence and astute insight. He had enormous courage in confronting church authorities and calling attention to the travesty that was unfolding in church responses to child sexual abuse.
Because of his diligence and resolve, children are safer and survivors have gained justice. Despite the tragedy of their personal lives, he will be remembered for the huge amount of good he has done. Together with Chrissie, he has left a legacy for forcing the church to become accountable and a safer institution for children.
He brought hope and comfort to so many people, particularly survivors, in their own struggles to seek answers and find justice. Anthony Foster will be deeply missed.
Authors: Kathleen McPhillips, Lecturer, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle