THE Catholic chaplain who ministers to youth inside Darwin’s notorious Don Dale detention centre, and even washed the boys’ feet, said he was “sick to the core” after watching graphic television images of abuse by guards.
Fr Dan Benedetti has ministered at the Northern Territory detention centre since 2003, and knows the teenagers, including Dylan Voller, whose brutal treatment was documented on the ABC TV’s Four Corners program.
“Those images have left me sick to the core, heart-broken and devastated,” Fr Benedetti, a priest from the order of the Missionaries of God’s Love, said.
“For the last three Holy Thursdays I’ve washed those feet, for years we’ve enjoyed singing and praying with those kids, and at our last service they acted out the story of the Good Samaritan.”
From the television images, Fr Benedetti recognised that “just metres from one of the places we had our services were these horrendous cells I didn’t even know existed”.
“This is not human, this is not Christ,” he said.
Darwin Bishop Eugene Hurley has also washed the feet of the youths in detention – an act of humility and service – and was equally appalled after viewing the images.
“We have witnessed the arrogant and brutal betrayal of a sacred trust that we have all invested in a system, in good faith,” Bishop Hurley said.
Fr Benedetti visits the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre at least once a month and talks to the youths “not so much about their cases but their spiritual life and their families”.
“I was not aware of any particular allegations of those kind of activities like keeping kids in isolation for so long, the spraying and the abuse and intimidation. I had not seen any of that before,” he said.
Fr Benedetti said he believed he had the trust of the youths.
He was aware of dire physical, emotional and spiritual conditions endured by the youths.
“Many of the kids come from far off communities or Alice Springs, 1500 kilometres away. They are totally isolated, like fish out of water,” he said.
Fr Benedetti described the Don Dale detention centre, which was moved to Darwin’s old Berrimah Jail, which was a “condemned old adult prison”, “all concrete and bars” and “no way a proper facility”.
He said the old jail site was “emotionally traumatic”. It had been a place of “lots of deaths in custody”.
“There’s a horrible section, an old remand section where the Aboriginal kids believe there are spirits, which freaked them out,” Fr Benedetti said.
The shocking images aired on Four Corners on July 25 had the power to move people and make governments act – quickly.
The following day Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission into abuse in the Northern Territory juvenile justice system, with terms of reference to examine child protection and youth detention over the past decade, to look at what violations were committed, what safeguards were in place and if the Northern Territory Government did enough to address issues in the system.
“Over the years I’ve met many caring and dedicated staff at Don Dale but I’ve lost faith in the system I’ve tried to work with. Things must change now,” Fr Benedetti said.
“Our society is saying we’re treating you like prisoners. Do you want a culture of punishment or a culture of rehabilitation?
“I certainly believe it is a culture of punishment that offers these kids no future.”
Fr Benedetti said he found the youths he had ministered to in detention had “a respect and an openness to Christianity”.
He said he had built confidence with them through Bible stories and songs, and individual prayer with blessed oil. Some always asked to pray for their family.
“There’s an acceptance and comfortableness with the service I have been bringing them,” Fr Benedetti said.
Despite his personal anguish over the issue, Fr Benedetti said he would try to maintain a “business as usual” approach on his next scheduled visit to the Don Dale detention centre today (August 7).
“I really believe the Church’s presence is invaluable. The faith, hope and love present there is the one thing these kids can absorb,” he said.
“And for me it’s been the most fulfilling part of my priestly journey so far.”
Bishop Hurley confirmed the Catholic Church would make submissions to the royal commission.
“Our response must be a total commitment to healing the harm done and commit ourselves to making sure that we have procedures in place to supervise systems that have demonstrated they cannot be trusted,” he said.
By Mark Bowling