Anthony Foster – tenacious advocate for victims of child sexual abuse

Anthony Foster – The tenacious advocate for victims of child sexual abuse

The first inkling that Anthony and Christine Foster’s daughter, Emma, might have been a victim of child sexual abuse came after years of Emma’s unexplained psychological issues and self-destructive behaviour had been occurring. It was in February 1996 that Emma’s psychiatrist said to Chrissie, “She’s displaying all the symptoms of someone who has been sexually abused.”

“It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”
    – Luke 17:2
“Sexual assault of a child is a crime. It is a crime against the child and a crime against society.”
    – Parliament of Victoria, Crime Prevention Committee.[1]
“Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying [and] delighting in the beauty and goodness of these young people . . . rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.”
    – Bishop Anthony Fisher[2]

Little did they know that from that time on the lives of this ordinary family with three beautiful girls, Emma, 14, Katie, 12, and 10 year-old Aimee were about to be turned upside-down.

They would all struggle each day henceforth to deal with the aftermath of a shocking betrayal of trust, firstly by their local Parish Priest and later by the unconscionable conduct of senior figures in the Catholic Church.

The following year Chrissie and Anthony were dealt with another blow when Chrissie found out the same priest had assaulted Katie five years earlier, back in 1992.

Emma would go on to have a troubled life of drug overdoses, suicide attempts with few respites of normality. Her pain ended in 2008 when she committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 26.

Katie, previously a brilliant student, also went into a downward spiral with depression and binge drinking. In May 1999 she was out drinking with friends when she was hit by a car. She was severely injured, left brain damaged and from then on required 24-hour care.

About Anthony Foster

Anthony John Foster was born in Melbourne on January 12, 1953, the third child of Ken and Joyce Foster. His parents had come to Melbourne from England in 1950 with two children, Carol (born in 1945), and brother Brian (born in 1947).

Anthony was a keen student. He attended Bayview State School in Mount Waverley and went on to matriculate from Waverley High School. He went on to study surveying at RMIT.

He had shown early signs of leadership and responsibility. As a 16 year-old he was awarded the highest scouting honour from the Governor of Victoria, Sir Rohan Delacombe, and became a Queen’s Scout.

He decided surveying wasn’t for him and became a commercial pilot. He joined the family business, Ken Foster Heating, in 1975 and eventually took over the business when his father retired in 1983. Under Anthony’s guidance Foster Hydronic Heating grew to become one of the leading companies in the industry.

Anthony met Christine in 1980 and were married five months later. Although he was baptised a Methodist, he later became an atheist. Chrissie was a devoted Catholic and Anthony agreed to have their children brought up as Catholics.

Over the years they would be great support for each other in the difficult times ahead.

The fight for justice

After hearing that Emma could have been assaulted, Anthony and Chrissie racked their brains to try to figure out who might have done such a thing to their daughter. The only school Emma had attended was their local Catholic primary school in Oakleigh, a suburb South-East of Melbourne’s central business district.

Eventually they realised the perpetrator could have been their local Catholic priest, Fr. Kevin O’Donnell. He had been jailed the previous year after pleading guilty to child sexual abuse of ten boys and two girls, all aged between eight and 15.

Although Emma refused to tell them anything, Anthony found out that O’Donnell had used Coke drinks laced with drugs with his victims. This fitted with what Emma had told Chrissie about her dislike of drinking Coke. “I don’t like the taste,” she had told her. “It makes me feel drunk.”

A few weeks later Emma reluctantly disclosed where Father O’Donnell had taken her, starting from when she was a five-year-old. It turned out that O’Donnell had unfettered access to children at the school and would to take them one-by-one to a small room under the hall where he would drug and rape them time and time again.

The Fosters went about alerting other parents at the school to be aware of what had happened. Other parishioners were in denial that a priest could do these things or that it was a serious issue. Many would say, “Why did it take them so long? They’re making it up. They’re just after the money.” Some parents would accuse their child was lying, such was their reverence for the clergy.

A report of an inquiry into sexual offences against children acknowledges this denial:

To reject a child’s disclosure as being outrageous, far-fetched and pure fiction is a defence mechanism which individuals and the community generally can adopt.[3]

Mostly it was only those families who had been directly or indirectly impacted by instances of child sexual abuse that shared the Foster’s concerns and wanted answers from the Catholic Church hierarchy.

The Fosters would learn later that O’Donnell had a history of child sexual abuse throughout his 50 years as a Catholic priest in various parishes around Melbourne. And all this criminal behaviour with the knowledge of his superiors.

O’Donnell wasn’t the first priest to be charged in the 1990s. Fr. Gerard Ridsdale had pleaded guilty to thirty charges of indecent assault against nine boys and was jailed in 1993. He would subsequently be convicted of many more offences, possibly involving hundreds of children.

In 1994 a Victoria Parliamentary inquiry published a report in May 1995 which was scathing of the Catholic Church leadership:

Another concern of the Committee is the number of assaults which have occurred within the church . . . and the organisation’s response to these offences.
Such offenders may be paedophiles who may use the sanctity of the church to conceal their acts of perversion whilst betraying the communities trust.
The Committee has received evidence from victims and their families suggesting that there may be more offenders which church leaders may be aware of, but where little action has been taken.[4]

At last, some light was being shone into the secret workings of the Church.

By the mid-90s the Melbourne Archdiocese was being inundated with complaints of child sexual abuse by more priests. In some cases writs were being issued for civil proceedings. The Archbishop at the time, Sir Frank Little, was at a loss as to what to do.

On 27 May 1996 the ABC Television program Four Corners disclosed how Father Ridsdale, by now convicted of many more cases of child sexual abuse, was moved from one parish to another by his local bishop. It also disclosed how the Catholic Church protects its assets by claiming it is not a legal entity and claiming that a bishop is not responsible for the behaviour of priests under his jurisdiction. The program was a damning indictment that showed victims were of secondary importance and could even be falsely discredited if they chose to go to court.

Something had to be done to restore confidence in the Church and changes were soon announced by The Vatican. Bishop George Pell was appointed as Archbishop of Melbourne to replace Sir Frank Little. Pell immediately went about replacing other senior clerics with his own trusted few as his assistants.

For years the Australian Bishops Conference had been dithering over a protocol for how to respond to claims of sexual assault. On 30 October 1996 Archbishop Pell announced the Melbourne Response protocol, four weeks before the remaining bishops in Australia announced the Towards Healing protocol. Both are similar and both are flawed in many ways, with the main difference that Pell capped the maximum payment at $50,000.

The Foster’s would find the Melbourne Response protocol to be a most disappointing and unsatisfactory experience. They believed the offer of $50,000 maximum was totally inadequate with actual payments rarely even half that amount. In the U.S.A. the compensation by the Catholic Church to victims of sexual abuse would be more like one million dollars.

The meeting with Archbishop Pell

The word pastoral is a comforting word. It conjures up images of sheep grazing in fields with a shepherd watching over them. It reminds one of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and his love of nature.

Pastoral theology is fundamental to the Catholic Church. It is based on the image of the good shepherd as described in the New Testament. Pastoral care is described as being “compassionate and merciful especially towards those in difficulty.”[5]

Archbishop Pell was invited to come to a meeting of Sacred Heart parishioners on the evening of 18 February 1997. The Foster’s arranged to meet Pell beforehand and acquaint him with their story. What happened in this meeting is important. It is a demonstration of unpastoral care of the worst kind by a church leader. It has been subsequently explored in the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and in the Royal Commission.

Anthony later told of the tone of their private meeting:

His whole thrust was that the Church wasn’t liable for the actions of their priests. I was trying to get justice for our children at the time and he was trying to prevent scandal to the Church and trying to save the Church’s money.
And we were in those two opposite corners. He was sitting in the big red chair. We were sitting on a hard wooden seat, being looked down upon by this powerful man of the Church.[6]

Chrissie described the discussion in more detail:

Anthony said softly, almost whispering: ‘What if my daughter dies? What if my daughter harms herself in such a way that she has a terrible life from now on? Shouldn’t the Church look after her? The Church caused this.’
George Pell countered by saying the Church’s liability would be defended in court.
When Anthony mentioned the Church had known about O’Donnell’s paedophilia for many decades, Archbishop Pell said: ‘That was before my time.’[7]

It was a very strange comment because there had already been acknowledgement by the Archdiocese that these actions by O’Donnell had happened. It was clear the Church was going to play rough and they did.

Chrissie then described the most galling part of their meeting. They had brought along photos of Emma being confirmed by Pell when he was a bishop some years before and a photo of Emma after she had cut her wrists.

When the meeting was almost finished, Anthony passed to Archbishop Pell the confirmation picture, to which he commented: ‘That’s nice.’
Then Anthony gave him the image of Emma with bloodied wrists and arms. I held my breath, hopeful that we could reach this man on a deeper level and he could offer us some sympathy, or a display of surprise perhaps, something, anything…
Archbishop Pell, however, peered at it for a moment and with an unchanged expression said casually: ‘Mmm … she’s changed, hasn’t she?’ He handed the picture back to us. We couldn’t believe his response. He was the first person we’d shown the image to. It was too distressing for anyone we knew to see. But it did not disturb the archbishop. Not a grimace or a frown.[8]

Pell has not questioned the accuracy of the record of the event as described by Chrissie Foster but has tried to defend his position.

The meeting did achieve something. It gave resolve to Anthony and Chrissie to fight their case, not just for their daughter, but for other victims and their families as well.

It would take nine years of legal wrangling before they settled the civil action brought against the Archdiocese.

The public hear of the Foster’s story

In 2002 a producer of Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes program had heard of the Foster’s story and approached them for an interview. Their names were not disclosed and they were in disguise for the sake of their children. In the interview broadcast on 2 June, Chrissie and Anthony simply gave the facts about their experience with the Melbourne Response and the letters they had received from Archbishop Pell and the lawyers. They didn’t know that Richard Carleton, the interviewer, was also meeting with the recently appointed Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell. The angle taken by Carleton was that the Fosters and others were offered ‘hush money’ and a requirement for confidentiality to keep it secret. In the interview Pell also denied ever seeing the photo of Emma Foster with her cut wrists.

The story was also published in the Herald Sun and created a media storm. It was the Foster’s first foray into the world of media and it would be an important vehicle for them and in particular, for Anthony, in achieving the changes to come.

Chrissie described the aftermath of the story as follows:

The 60 Minutes program did what the Catholic Church failed to do – it helped victims. It raised awareness of clergy sexual abuse and gave some people a voice, encouraging two hundred brave sufferers to make new complaints. As a result, twenty more perpetrator priests were exposed.[9]

It was several years later in July 2008 that the Fosters would again be on national TV in what was to be a watershed year. The ABC Lateline program was investigating the behaviour of Archbishop Pell and wanted comments from Anthony. Chrissie and Anthony were on holiday in Scotland when the request came through. They decided to return to Australia and attempt to meet with the Pope while he was in Sydney for World Youth Day.

The 12 minute Lateline interview broadcast on 15 July was very moving. Anthony told what happened to his daughters while he struggled to keep his emotions in check. He then told of the unfair system put in place by the then Archbishop of Melbourne and explained what he was expecting from the Pope and from the now elevated Cardinal Pell.[10]

In the lead up to World Youth Day the response from the Catholic hierarchy to the interview was astounding. The organiser, Bishop Anthony Fisher, said, “Happily, I think most of Australia was enjoying, delighting in, the beauty and goodness of these young people rather than dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.”[11]

These comments were hurtful and offensive not only to the Fosters. Chrissie wrote about the media’s response:

Criticism of the comment was extensive. The newspapers screamed: ‘Don’t be so cranky: bishop’s advice to sex abuse victims’, ‘A cranky father tells the church: the wounds are still raw and open’, ‘Outrage over bishop’s remarks on sex abuse’, ‘Fury at “cranky” sex slur ’, ‘Don’t dwell on abuse that ruined lives, says bishop’.
These headlines preceded editorials – ‘A bishop’s remark, not parents’ grief, opens old wounds,’ wrote one columnist. ‘Some wounds are too painful to heal,’ added another.[12]

When Anthony and Chrissie reached Sydney some thirty hours after leaving London they were met by a throng of reporters. Anthony obliged with a lengthy statement and, although exhausted, gave interviews for all requests. He was becoming the unofficial representative and spokesperson for victims and their families.

By now Anthony and Chrissie and others realised it would take a Royal Commission to uncover what was really going on in the Church to achieve change.

It was now Chrissie who made a major contribution with the release of the book, Hell on the Way to Heaven, co-authored with ABC reporter Paul Kennedy. It was a full and frank account of their lives and what had transpired to turn their lives into an on-going nightmare.

The book, launched on 26 August 2010, was well-timed and had a considerable impact.

The 2012 Cummins Inquiry report had requested the Victorian Government should hold a further inquiry. Chrissie’s book underlined the importance of doing so and the Parliamentary Inquiry was launched in 2012.[13]

Anthony, Chrissie, Katie and Aimee made written submissions to the inquiry and were key witnesses at the public hearings. At the release of the report of the inquiry, Dr. Denis Napthine, Victoria’s first Catholic Premier promised to implement the 15 recommendations, saying, “I’m ashamed and embarrassed of the actions of the Catholic Church or lack of actions on these matters.”[14]

But this wasn’t just a problem in Victoria – it was a national issue which required a Royal Commission. The Victorian Inquiry, still underway, together with the long-time exposure by the Newcastle Herald in New South Wales by journalist Joanne McCarthy prompted the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to announce on 12 November 2012 the creation of a national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Again the Fosters have been major contributors to this inquiry which is to deliver its report in December 2017.

But fate intervened and Anthony would not hear the outcome. On May 26, 2017 Anthony John Foster, aged 64 years, died in hospital after suffering a fall at home a few days before.

Together they had achieved more than they could be expected to achieve.

The evil of child sexual abuse and its coverup

Evil is defined as “the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrong doing . . . something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity.”[15]

Keven O’Donnell was a very sick individual, a paedophile who committed evil acts with children. David Forster, a Melbourne lawyer who has represented many victims of clerical sexual abuse, estimates he could have abused up to 2,000 children. Police involved in the case called him the ‘two-a-day’ man.

O’Donnell used to tell Katie that she was the evil one and she believed him. Katie told her mother years later, “He took me into the school hall, downstairs to a room that was under the stage and orally raped me. He told me I was evil.”[16]

Paedophilia – the sexual attraction in an adult towards children – is not a crime. And not all paedophiles are child sex offenders. Paedophilia is not curable. According to the Harvard Medical School, the focus should be on protecting children from sexual assault.

Sexual assault is a crime and has always been a serious crime. Sexual assault is ‘any behaviour of a sexual nature that makes someone feel uncomfortable, frightened, intimidated or threatened. It is sexual behaviour that someone has not agreed to, where another person uses physical or emotional force against them.’[17]

But it wasn’t just the perpetrators that brought ‘sorrow, distress or calamity’ to victims and their families. Those priests and bishops who knew about the criminal activities and did nothing to report it or covered it up also committed evil acts. Then there were those who made it as difficult as possible for a victim or secondary victim to sue the Church or individuals. They had little or no compassion for the victims; protecting the name of the church was paramount. This was the second betrayal victims and their families experienced – another evil act.

American priest, Monsignor Tom Doyle, who gave evidence at the Royal Commission, has previously said:

Catholic church officials who knew about the existence of clerical abuse of minors have either been culpably and consistently ignorant of the compulsive dimension of the sexual disorders that afflicted the abusers, or they have ignored the warnings of medical experts. They may not have been aware of the scientific nature of the different sexual disorders nor of the clinical descriptions of the emotional and psychological impact on victims, but they cannot claim ignorance of the fact that such behavior was destructive in effect and criminal in nature.[18]

Which brings us to Cardinal George Pell and the Catholic Church’s institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Pell has appeared before the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry and the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission will hand down its findings in December 2017.

Pell’s performance at the Royal Commission when he appeared by video link from Rome was enlightening. (See my previous blog post, Cardinal George Pell – Does his leadership pass the wisdom test?)

Cardinal Pell has now been charged with historical sexual assault offences brought forward by multiple complainants. These complaints are yet to be tested in court.

Tributes for Anthony Foster

What made him such a successful advocate for victims of child sexual abuse? How was it that he achieved so much in his 64 years.

His TV appearances are one way to see for yourself, the quiet, articulate, yet determined advocate for justice for victims of child sexual abuse in action. See Bibliography below.

The tributes at the State Funeral in his honour on June 7, 2017 plus those published in the media also give us a clue to the makeup of this extraordinary individual. It was Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria, who gave this moving tribute at the State Funeral:

Grace. It’s a singular word in the Christian tradition. Grace is generous, grace is kind and grace recognises no class or caste. Grace, it is said, is love that cares and rescues. It is a word that finds its foundations in Christianity.

But standing here today, friends, I can think of no finer example of grace – of a man who loved and cared and rescued – than Anthony Foster.

I met Anthony and Chrissie only a handful of times, and it always was Anthony and Chrissie. Always together. Never one without the other. But every time I was with them, their integrity, their strength, their grace was apparent to me. What was also very clear was their extraordinary courage.

The Fosters had faced their own tragedy – their own unimaginable tragedy. A betrayal of trust and then a denial of truth. For years, they’d fought for their girls. For the justice and recognition they deserved. Then, remarkably, despite everything they’d endured themselves, the Fosters dedicated their lives to fighting on behalf of every other victim too.

As Anthony said as part of Victoria’s parliamentary inquiry, in the most personal sense, his and Chrissie’s efforts were “futile”. They could not bring Emma back, or heal Katie’s injuries.

But it wasn’t just about them. It was never just about them. The Fosters were fighting for every childhood that had been taken, and for every family that had been broken.

While perpetrators and their protectors continued to deny and hide, and long before any royal commission or any parliamentary inquiry, Anthony and Chrissie shone a powerful light on one of our darkest chapters.

It’s hard to comprehend everything they faced. The suppression, the deception, the isolation. Indeed, never have those who were owed so much been given so little. And never has so much been asked of those who had already lost so deeply.

But together, the Fosters defied that culture of silence. They challenged those who sought to hide the truth, and those who chose to avert their gaze. And they helped transform victims into survivors, silence into justice.

The Fosters always understood the power of being listened to, and the power of being believed. It’s why, in 2012, when the Royal Commission was announced, Anthony and Chrissie made a pact to attend every session they could. To hear every victim they could.

Everyone on that stand, all they’d ever seen or heard were institutions that averted their gaze. But now instead, they could look straight out into the Fosters’ eyes and know they were being listened to. It was a simple act, but a profound one too. And I think it says much about the man Anthony was.

And while he has left us too soon, Anthony leaves behind a lasting legacy. Because of Anthony, a terrible evil has at long last been recognised. Because of Anthony, victims now are finally being heard. And because of Anthony, this nation and this state, are fundamentally changed forever.

Katie, Aimee, Chrissie – to your loved ones – I am so very sorry. There’s nothing I can say to make this difficult time any easier. But please know, your darling dad and your darling husband won’t ever be forgotten.

Just as Anthony shone a bright light in life, his legacy will continue to guide our way forward. Just as Anthony never gave up, neither will we.[19]

Anthony Foster – Advocate for change

Anthony Foster’s life is a magnificent example of how one can achieve monumental change through applying the Can-Do Wisdom Framework shown below. He passed through the I Can and I Do quadrants through learning, living and leading. Eventually he convinced and worked with others to move through the We Can quadrant to examine a wanting culture to finally be at the cusp of change to a social system for the betterment of all in the We Do quadrant.

Can-Do Wisdom Framework for Change
Can-Do Wisdom Framework


The following links are examples of just how intelligent, measured and articulate Chrissie and Anthony were in their interviews:
‘In the Name of the Law’, Four Corners Excerpt, ABC, August 11, 2014, television broadcast
‘Anthony Foster: Extended interview’, News and Current Affairs, SBS, October 11, 2012, television broadcast
‘Father of assault victims to visit Pope’, Lateline, ABC, July 15, 2008, television broadcast

End Notes

1. Parliament of Victoria, Crime Prevention Committee. Combating Child Sexual Assault – An Integrated Model (Melbourne: L. V. North, Government Printer, May 1995), 7.
2. ‘Bishop Anthony Fisher under fire after dismissing sexual abuse case’, PM, ABC, July 16, 2008, radio broadcast,
3. Parliament of Victoria, Crime Prevention Committee. Combating Child Sexual Assault – An Integrated Model, viii.
4. Parliament of Victoria, Crime Prevention Committee. Combating Child Sexual Assault – An Integrated Model, 309
5. Definition of Pastoral Care, St Brigid’s School, accessed June 27, 2017,
6. ‘In the Name of the Law’, Four Corners, ABC, August 11, 2014, television broadcast,
7. Chrissie Foster and Paul Kennedy, Hell on Way to Heaven (North Sydney: Random House, 2010), 158.
8. Foster and Kennedy, Hell on Way to Heaven, 161.
9. Foster and Kennedy, Hell on Way to Heaven, 285.
10. ‘Father of assault victims to visit Pope’, Lateline, ABC, July 15, 2008, television broadcast,
11. “Bishop Anthony Fisher under fire after dismissing sexual abuse case.”
12. Foster and Kennedy, Hell on Way to Heaven, 363.
13. Parliament of Victoria, Family and Community Development Committee. Betrayal of Trust: Inquiry Into the Handling Of Child Abuse By Religious And Other Non-Government Organisations – Report 1 (East Melbourne: Parliament House, 2014),
14. ‘Hang your heads in shame, Denis Napthine tells Catholic leaders’, The Australian, November 13, 2013,
15. ‘Definition of evil’, Mirriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed June 27, 2017,
16. Foster and Kennedy, Hell on Way to Heaven, 311.
17. ‘Sexual assault’, Victims of Crime, accessed June 27, 2017,
18. Thomas P. Doyle, A.W. Richard Sipe and Patrick J. Wall, Sex, Priests, and Secret codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000-year paper trail of sexual abuse (Los Angeles: Volt Press, 2006), 213.
19. ‘Anthony Foster State Funeral, YouTube video, 1:49:52, from a Facetube broadcast on June 7, 2017,

Posted in Change, Leadership, Wisdom in Action and tagged , , , , , , , , .

One Comment

  1. Of course I am as disgusted as you by this terrible scandal but maybe you should cut Anthony Fisher some slack. He did say that his infamous comments were aimed at the media and not the victims. I will concede he should have made a better choice of words.

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