Three Melbourne churches have been set alight in three days. And although police have stated that they're treating them as separate incidents, it seems the jury is already out. All three churches were Catholic and with links to sexual abuse. The onlookers I spoke to all offered the same conclusion: there's an arsonist on the loose, and they're torching the churches associated with pedophile priests.
Father Ronald Dennis Pickering, now-deceased, had worked at both St. James and St. Mary's in St. Kilda for a 30-year stretch until the early 1990s. St. Mary's in Dandenong, Australia, however, was one of eight churches linked to Father Kevin O'Donnell, who sexually abused children at a number of churches through his 50-year Melbourne career.
The first two attacks took place in the early hours of Monday morning. St. James Church in Brighton was comprehensibly guttered while St. Mary's Church in St. Kilda suffered a singed door. Then, less than 48 hours later, someone torched another St Mary's in Dandenong.
When I visited the Brighton and St. Kilda churches on Wednesday afternoon, the smell of charred wood was strong while fragments of ash still about floated the air. A steady stream of onlookers stopped by for a look. I met a local parishioner who had planned to attend the Easter service this weekend; a couple who had wanted to be married there; and a man who's father and uncle (The Lodge Bros) actually built churches. All shared a personal sense of loss but were also of the opinion that the buildings were torched for a reason.
"To do such a comprehensive job and the fact that you had the other two [churches] within a couple of days it undoubtedly has to be arson. I wouldn't question it at all," said Alan Lodge.
A local parishioner, Steven, also believed it was arson. "It's got to be to do with the Royal Commission," he said, voicing his opinion. "It's about the pedophile cases."
I offered this conclusion to the priest at St. Mary's in St. Kilda, Father Barry Moran, but he wasn't buying it. Instead, as priests often do, he talked in parables and contextualized this recent spree with other arson attacks on churches and elsewhere in Melbourne. Father Moran was keen to detract from the narrative that these attacks were carried out with a clear motive and rather pushed the idea that the perpetrator(s) must be mentally unstable.
Though Alan Lodge thought that the arsonist's motive was clearly related to historic child abuse cases his sympathised with the priest's point of view. "When people have been so emotionally disturbed," he said, "they can act in the most extreme fashion. Once emotion takes over when your rational thinking starts to depart."
Steven felt certain that an arsonist was on the loose but wasn't concerned for his own safety. "The attacks seem pretty targeted," he said. "I'm not worried but other priests probably should be." Then he went on to describe his fear of daytime burglaries by meth users.
Lodge agreed that priests should be concerned for their safety and that of their churches. "The attacks have built up a strong momentum at the moment," he said. "And when does that momentum cease?"
The regional Bishop, Peter Elliot, told Fairfax Radio that security would be stepped up across all of Melbourne's churches in response to the fires. But Father Moran all but laughed at this. "It [security] is extremely expensive and we couldn't afford it," he said. "The state has a police force that costs billions and they can't guard us. If they [the arsonists] want to do it they will."
Many of Father Moran's parishioners have called to ask about his and the church's safety. "I feel sympathy," he told me, "because people of course feel concerned but there's nothing to tell them and there's absolutely nothing they can do."
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