Thursday, August 02, 2007

Priest regrets four-letter outburst

Melbourne's 110-year-old St Patrick's Cathedral, considered to be one of the world's best examples of Gothic Revival architecture, has won a new blast of international fame.

But this time the news is not good for the grand church declared a minor basilica by Pope Paul VI and later the venue for an address to clergy by Pope John Paul II.

Its Dean, the Rev Monsignor Geoff Baron, has been suspended by the Archbishop of Melbourne after a video appeared on the YouTube internet site showing the priest abusing skateboarders with racist obscenities. Other skaters have since said the incident was not the first: one claimed Baron had used violence against him.

The news flashed around the world yesterday, making headlines in the media and appearing on blogs and skating, religious and anti-racist websites.

The white supremacist website Stormfront carried messages urging emails of support for Baron, describing the priest as an "absolute legend" and comparing the incident to Jesus' cleansing of the temple.

The incident - filmed by mobile phone and posted as a three-minute, 20-second video called Priest Kickout and since removed by YouTube - occurred about a year ago as Baron confronted a group of skateboarders performing on the steps of the cathedral.

Angered by a long history of skating at the church, and by taunts and accusations of paedophilia from the youths as they skated around him, Baron snapped and told them "f ** k you. Get off the property. Get off the property".

After one of the skaters told Baron he was going to "f**k you up", the priest launched an obscene and racist tirade, describing them as "f*****g c***s" and telling Asian youths in the group they had "slitty eyes and black hair" and were foreigners who should "get back where you come from ... you don't belong in Australia". He asked one: "How's your a******e from being f****d by all these c***s?"

Confronted with the video, a remorseful Baron told Southern Cross radio he had reacted like a hunted animal yapped at by jackals and hyenas, and admitted: "It was outrageous behaviour. I can't excuse it.

"It might be linked up in some way that so many priests are considered to be paedophiles and here I was being called one. The shame that I feel, and the embarrassment, I can't really describe it. If I could walk around the city in sackcloth and ashes I would."

Baron refused to apologise to the youths, saying he believed they took delight in reducing people to grovelling. "[But] I apologise to all who were scandalised by my behaviour."

Archbishop Denis Hart, whose seat is St Patrick's Cathedral, said he had known Baron for 46 years as a very good and talented man and priest, but suspended the priest while he investigated the incident.

"I know my concern for what has happened and for everyone involved - the dean, presbytery and cathedral staff, the young fellows who have been frequenting the ground, visitors and parishioners of the cathedral, anyone that has been offended or scandalised by the dean's words spoken in rage - is shared by many people in Melbourne and beyond."

As security guards patrolled the cathedral grounds following threats from skaters, Victoria's new Premier, John Brumby, said that while Baron's outburst was inexcusable, he had apologised.

"He's expressed remorse, he's apologised ... and I think in the circumstances that's appropriate."

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