PETER DONNAN. Is church reform supported by Australian Catholic media?

Despite rhetoric around listening and discernment, Australian Catholic media are not generally forums where diverse perspectives are to be found. Many diocesan Catholic publications do not include Letters to the Editor and ‘discussions’ are outsourced to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. An exception in Australia is the Jesuit online site, Eureka Street and one gets a sense of its ethos from the remarks of contributing editor, Andrew Hamilton, SJ, who writes of a “commitment to a public conversation that is open and courteous. Its editors hope that readers will engage with what is written, explore the arguments deeply, and be open to modify their own views”.

The Plenary Council 2020 website is promoting ‘listening and dialogue’, ‘thematic dialogue’ and messages of ’your voice is needed’. Archbishop Coleridge’s webcast on the site seeks to involve the whole Church in Australia where ‘decisions are made together.’ The facts are, however, that under Canon Law bishops will have a ‘deliberative’ vote at the Plenary Council and very few lay members can even hope for a ‘consultative’ vote (Can. 443, §1)

Moderating public discussion forums in polemical environments is challenging. The New York Times, for instance, employs fifty staff to moderate online discussions arising from their newspaper columns. Despite its flaws, the ABC’s Q&A illustrates it is possible to discuss contentious issues of national importance in a public environment where conflict is often endemic.

Despite conceding the value of public discussion, why is it so challenging, particularly for Australian Catholic media? The issues around staffing and resourcing are starting points but a more serious problem the Editor of National Catholic Reporter identifies is: “We see comments as part of our mission of enabling conversations in the Catholic community” … [the problem is to] “screen out the nasty things people will say to one another. There is no validation system that will keep out the trolls and people with ill-intent who are determined to get it.”

The Australian Catholic Church has strong conservative, deeply embedded, even tribal cultural practices illustrated by such issues as the way divorcees are treated, how contraception is regarded, pilgrimages, the Latin mass, Angelus/Church bells, novenas, priestly celibacy, the role of women in the Church, the Legion of Mary, medals of saints, self-serving beatification processes as in the case of Pope John XX111/Pope Paul 6, pious practices around special saints such as St Monica, the patron saint of wives and alcoholics, and devotional prayers such as the Rosary.

Devotional practices, church teaching and beliefs are critical for many older Catholics. Some traditions have richly served earlier generations of Catholics and they continue to do so today. Looking to the future of the Church, and a younger generations of Catholics, one might hypothesise that new forms of spirituality and different ways of engagement with the gospel message of Jesus are likely to evolve. C.Lamb (The Tablet, Jan, 2019) notes that Pope Francis has effectively ruled “that traditionalists can freely celebrate the old rite liturgies, but they cannot reject Vatican II.” Vatican 11 occurred in the sixties but it still remains a bastion or perhaps a bridge too far for more ultra-conservative Catholics.

After viewing a cross-section of Catholic diocesan publications, my view is that progressive, reformist agendas cause discomfort to those who are editors, publishers or clergy who have overall responsibility for such publications. Conservative Catholic agendas are given higher priority and The Catholic Weekly’s boast, for example, is that ‘it is proudly Catholic, proudly counter-cultural’. My views of more than twenty such publications indicates that at times there are anti-intellectual elements evident in Catholic media and that to question or critique issues is almost anti-Christian.

Jack Jenkins (2019) notes that whenever Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wants to get the attention of the pope or his fellow bishops, he works through the National Catholic Register, a conservative Catholic publication, owned by the Eternal Word Television Network which has spent the better part of four decades quietly building a Catholic media empire that spans the globe.

In writing about the Plenary Council, Shane Dwyer, Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation states: ‘Instead of focusing on what each of us believes God is asking of us, the question much more quickly becomes what do I think is wrong with the Church? Or, what are my personal opinions about what ‘the Church’ should be doing?’ In his view, the listening phase is hindered by ‘dominant figures’ and a ‘more adversarial approach’. One of the implications of this position is that conflict and contesting different perspectives might even be spiritually harmful. There is of course a long history of dealing with conflict in the Catholic Church: Peter and Paul’s clash over circumcision at the Council of Jerusalem is an early example.

Was Christ’s gospel message exposed to conflict, challenge and questioning? I can think of many examples and there is an interesting clip from ‘The Tablet’ [2018] which reports that “The two synod gatherings on the family in 2014 and 2015 saw fiery exchanges, and even a protest letter from a group of cardinals. To its defenders, the more open synods of the Francis papacy are exposing the divisions that were already under the surface. Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, one of the most prominent synod fathers, stated: “It’s giving people a growing sense that we are moving into an adult Church, not an infantile Church. This is the way adults deal with differences, they don’t look to Daddy to solve all their problems, or hide them because they are afraid of conflict.”

While this preference for conservative agendas is maintained in Australian Catholic media, momentum for reform is thwarted. The types of issues that Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn are promoting have restricted publication outlets. Ironically, there is the secular media, the ABC, Eureka Street, academic journals, blog sites, book publishing etc. but in general the diocesan media forums within the Catholic spectrum remain indifferent, even antagonistic, and so reform is muffled.

Peter Donnan is a retiree: he taught in Public and Catholic high schools and worked in two Australian universities.

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17 Responses to PETER DONNAN. Is church reform supported by Australian Catholic media?

  1. Patricia Boylan says:

    Dear Peter,
    There is ongoing evidence that the Catholic Media has actively covered up, washed over, successfully deflected and concealed information to laity and the mainstream media since the end of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.
    The church media fails to tell the real story by activity deflecting, obscuring, covering up and concealing clerical sex abuses matters. It could be wrongdoing by a Marist Brother or rape by an international priest or failing to mention a Bishop’s role in relocating a paedophile priest to other dioceses.
    Instead, the glossy church magazine and its online news sites provide articles on the return of the priest to his family in India (after the rape of a parishioner), the Marist brothers promotion to a new position (after sexually abusing a staff member), the honors awarded to a senior cleric (while in 2019 child abuse victims in his and other dioceses fight in court for redress.)
    If only there were articles on how the church gave this convicted priest easy access to young victims, and some of them got him jailed.
    Instead, the articles are written to promote the church reputation as scandal-free.
    David Gibson from Fordham University says, “Time and again we heard bishops say they did not want to “give scandal” by publicising the real reason a pastor was suddenly yanked from the pulpit or sent into retirement or transferred elsewhere, or they claimed they did not want to bring the church into disrepute before a hostile world by airing the clergy’s dirty laundry.
    Australian Bishops and their media advisors must think that the laity is too frail and weak to be trusted to hear the truth.
    David Gibson explains,”The problem is that the church’s “doctrine of scandal” has, by tradition and by canon law and by some readings of Saint Paul, gotten the formula exactly backwards: sins must be concealed to preserve the faithful – “the faithful” taken here to mean a flock too weak-minded to be trusted – from having their faith undermined by the discovery that some of their shepherds are not all they’ve been cracked up to be.
    In Australian, Catholic media is written and delivered in the interests of Bishops, with little concern for the laity or the general community.
    Missing are the stories on the convictions of the local parish priest or teacher, church legal costs against victims, payouts and silencing clauses, inequitable federal and state government funding to schools, tax-free status, exemption from the lobby register or annual child abuse register reports, nor the stories on victims request for redress.
    Laity can read between the lines and see the hypocrisy, pretence and outright fabrications.
    David Gibson says the concealment infuriates laity.
    The “clergy sex abuse scandal” has been something of a misnomer in that, according to the First Law of Media Dynamics, the public always views the cover-up as worse than the crime. Every case of abuse is a crime, a horror and a tragedy.
    But it is the concealment of those acts, by bishops charged with overseeing priests, that infuriates the flock.”

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hullo Patricia,

      A central perspective in your posting is that “The church media fails to tell the real story by actively deflecting, obscuring, covering up and concealing clerical sex abuses matters.”

      I agree but would add that this concealment or ‘muffled’ reporting is not limited to sexual abuse; it also extends to other areas of clerical and doctrinal life, such as priestly celibacy, female priests, the way divorce is treated in the Catholic church, contraceptive practices, etc.

      To advance the discussion, we should consider why concealed reporting occurs in Catholic media and how reform agendas can be implemented in diocesan publications.

      Concealed reporting generally occurs because Catholic bishops are appointed by outgoing bishops, neighbouring bishops, the faithful, the apostolic nuncio, various members of the Roman Curia, and the pope; this occurs within a hierarchical structure; and essentially it is a top-down rather than a bottom-up or middle-out process. It promotes an internal Vatican-orientated, discipline and is reinforced by five yearly, upwardly reporting “ad limina” visits to the pope and various officials.

      In looking at reform, one can identify agendas based on good practice models of Catholic media as illustrated by ‘The Tablet’, ‘Eureka Street’, ‘The National Catholic Reporter’, ‘Australian Catholics’ and other examples. These include

      * An independent editor
      * Advice from an editorial board that includes a spectrum of Catholics, especially from the laity and without clerical dominance
      * Editorial priorities that include a focus on Christology, youth, ecumenism etc
      * A policy to present a diversity of viewpoints on religious issues
      * A team of feature writers with a scholarly background in their areas
      * A budgetary allocation that assures quality in terms of staffing and resources both in print and online
      * Opportunities to engage in online discussions and in print form through Letters to the Editor
      * Coverage of diocesan community life, the Bishops voice, and the broader church
      * Podcasts, Book Reviews, Letters, Blogs, A Student Zone
      * Smaller dioceses might consider partnerships/synergies with neighbouring dioceses

      In America, powerful conservative Catholic media are strongly critical of Pope Francis’ initiatives to be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics; and, furthermore, his pronouncement not be obsessed by “culture war” issues such as abortion. In Australia, the Catholic media landscape is enriched by a Jesuit influence but the direction of diocesan publications is determined principally by Australian bishops and there is considerable scope for concern as well as reform.

  2. Patricia Boylan says:

    Whatever your views are on abortion, it is empty for Bishops to campaign vigorously for the rights of ‘unborn children’ when they fail to act to protect the rights of ‘born children’.
    In Queensland, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has failed to campaign to change the civil law requiring mandatory reporting for clergy. Why not?
    Queensland has one of the weakest laws in Australia. Under canon law, the head of Australia’s Bishops, Archbishop Mark Coleridge and his fellow Queensland Bishops are required to conceal clergy abuse as there is no civil law requiring them to report.
    As the Bishops are autocratically in charge of Catholic Education, their failure to act on this matter sends a strong message to their highly paid education executives managing Catholic schools.
    During the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher agreed to national mandatory reporting laws for clergy.
    Archbishop Fisher has campaigned loudly against same-sex marriage but not uniform mandatory reporting laws for clergy in Australia. Why not?
    While Pope Francis and his old male Bishops fail to act to protect ‘born children’ against predatory clerics, their moral authority to speak on any matters such as protecting the ‘unborn child’ rings hollow and empty.
    Added to this, the Bishops ongoing failure to support survivors of clerical abuse is gut-wrenching.
    In hushed tones, most Bishops still pretend they are innocent, deny everything and hoping it will go away. Even the rusted on laity, can now see the Emporer/Bishops have no clothes.
    The historical plan is that the Roman Church can outlast the lives of the loud protesting survivors.
    So Australian Bishops and (their well-paid helpers) still think by shooting the messengers, ignoring the victims, pulling down the shutters and rewriting history, it may all go away.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hullo Patricia,

      Peter Wilkinson, John Warhurst and Patsy McGarry, along with others, have articles on Pearls and Irritations that support your views about Australian Bishops. Allan Patience also writes: “Archbishop Fisher should have acknowledged (as he must do for the rest of his preaching days) the appalling moral mess the Church is now floundering in because of the failed leadership of bishops and others not unlike him. He should have begun by asking the St Mary’s congregation for their forgiveness. No more clericalist arrogance.”

      I made the point in my original posting that in Canberra Archbishop Mark Coleridge ceased the practice of publishing letters to the Editor in Catholic ’Voice’ yet is now advocating an earnest listening presence for the Plenary Council. His successor, Archbishop Prowse, in the latest February edition of ‘Voice’ writes of ‘listening humbly and speaking courageously in 2019’ but continues to refuse a voice to letters of Catholics in the diocesan publication. Cardinal Pell was relieved of his Vatican role to face impending charges in Australia and Bishop Wilson’s case received extensive coverage. In 2008 then Bishop Fisher, referred to those protesting about sexual abuse in the church as “dwelling crankily, as a few people are doing, on old wounds.” These bishops are senior leaders in the Catholic Church in Australia.

      You write, Patricia, that “the Bishops ongoing failure to support survivors of clerical abuse is gut-wrenching.” This is intensified when one becomes aware of the money spent on legal fees of offenders and how little compensation has been paid to victims to date.

      The point of my posting was that many reform agendas are muffled in the Catholic media but it is the bishops who, as you write, have such a critical role. They certainly have the power to allow the winds of reform to blow through Catholic media as well as in the other areas that you refer to.

  3. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    At this year’s Red mass in Melbourne, the presiding bishop delivered a homily about euthanasia. He called it the ‘state-sponsored killing’ of … (x numbers of citizens). This is because a long-discussed and anticipated law regarding a human right to die – to escape terminal suffering – is to be introduced this year in Victoria.
    At the gate to the Cathedral grounds – outside the gate – were a handful of ‘showing-up’ demonstrators against the RCC’s failed management of the issue of clergy abuse of children.
    Nobody spoke to them (except this writer, of course). Nobody welcomed them or offered them place at the morning-tea after Mass.
    Except for a mention (‘the Royal Commission’) – referring to what a hard time of it all the Church is having this past year – no reference at all was made to acknowledge the existence at the gates of the spiritually halt and lame.
    From this, and accumulated vignettes over a lifetime, i deduce that this ‘Church’ – this ‘Christian’ Church, has a serious identity problem. It doesn’t know what it stands- for, it doesn’t know who it is, it has no idea of how to behave correctly towards those less fortunate than itself, and it doesn’t care. I was not ashamed – I’ve been way beyond ‘ashamed’ for decades – but if I were one of those communicating in wigs and gowns that day I hope I’d have had the decency, the grace, to damn well oughta be.
    Talk about Letters to the Editor, and communications, and plenaries and papal and episcopal ‘deliberations’ – and listening in discussion forums …. what’s it all mean, what’s it ‘for’? It’s Talk. It helps to fill the Time.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hi Rosemary,

      You write: “this ‘Christian’ Church, has a serious identity problem. It doesn’t know what it stands- for, it doesn’t know who it is, it has no idea of how to behave correctly towards those less fortunate than itself.”

      Rather than comment on the heart-rending issues of abortion and euthanasia – where the Church’s valuing of human life is unequivocal – I am struck by your observation that the Church ‘has no idea of how to behave…”

      It reminds me of a comment from a Gay Mardi Gras leader some years ago now, who said: “The Catholic clergy like to tog up like us but they don’t like to share the dressing room with us”.

      It raises the question of how would Christ respond and the answer is likely to be with profound compassion and understanding. He might even be in the dressing room having a conversation!

      • Rosemary O'Grady says:

        I tried to write a Reply to this today Monday 4 February. The screen disappeared before my eyes.
        I can’t summon the reserves again. Sufficeth: JC did not turn a blind eye to widows, and the diseased and suffering, and sinners. But his so-called followers here on Earth today do so with verve.
        It is poor taste to mention that last time I looked at estimates of the billings by one Melbourne law firm post-child abuse scandals, that one firm had posted an estimated $12 million in fees – and that was 2 years ago.
        What price a few cups of tea outside the gate on a hot summer day? A kind word? A teaspoonful of fellow-feeling?
        Evidently: too much.

        • Peter Donnan says:

          Hullo Rosemary,

          It is interesting to compare how Jesus interacted with the Woman at the Well and how the institutional Catholic Church responds to divorcees and generally prioritises men over women in religious/priestly life.

          It is interesting to note who pleaded Jesus’ case before Herod and how modern day bishops employ expensive QCs in court appearances.

          Only a small percentage of people have been compensated to date as victims of child sexual abuse under the National Redress Scheme but when all is said and done, the balance of moneys that goes to legal practitioners, as distinct from direct payments to victims, will be interesting. The reference in your posting to $12 million is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

          In my view, many Catholics are not seeking doctrinal certitude from the Catholic Church today but they are searching for an authentic spirituality that Jesus demonstrates in his interactions with the poor, the outcast, the ill. Your posting raises questions around the the widow’s mite, the beatitudes; and the practice of these in some of Christ’s followers today.

          • Rosemary O'Grady says:

            I watched, on 8 December, 1995, at Sta maria Maggiore, a woman, clearly disturbed, attempt to approach Santo Padre, who was due to arrive at the door any minute, with some sort of supplication. She was peremptorily removed, dragged-away by security, or was it Swiss Guard? I forget. What I remember is the insignificance of the tortured woman, and the intransigence of the custodians of the ceremony. And the sound of her voice, as she was removed… crying…

        • Peter Donnan says:

          Hi Rosemary,

          Your postings present some key ideas.

          There is the futility of online discussions – becoming as you say – just talk. But there is also the possibility of change through these forums. Check out the site ‘Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn’ and you will see specific reform agendas arising from the Royal Commission.

          In your three postings, there are recurring images of power – security guards, bishops, custodians, a Melbourne legal film billing for $12 milion. Up against these power structures you have personally witnessed dismissive treatment of protestors, a tortured woman, the halt and lame, the diseased and suffering.

          What concerns you is the lack of personal sensitivity in terms of how people within the power structures deal with these vulnerable people. There is no invitation to a cup of tea, the hurt are just dragged away.

          The tenderness and compassion of the good samaritan towards a stranger who has been attacked is the Christian ideal: “On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.”

          Christ posed the central challenge of being called to discipleship in terms of “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

          So your postings draw attention to a central challenge of the Christ-life Christians are called to live out. These are my thoughts about your postings, Rosemary, and I would be interested in other points of view.

          • Rosemary O'Grady says:

            How touching! that you should take such trouble. Thank-you.
            If you want a response: I see ‘Inequality’ as the key issue in the world today because from it stem all the evils of the world: poverty, war/violence/aggression/domination/exploitation… and JC, of course, Lived contra all those things. Except for poverty which, provided it is not of a degrading kind – can be something to aspire to in the name of ‘community’, say: simplicity rather than institutionalised cruelty. It’s way more elegant a way to spend 70 years. And tks again, Peter. Most kind.

  4. David TIMBS says:

    Peter,
    I suggest that if would be highly instructive if you worked up this helpful piece with a subsequent article documenting, time-line fashion, the gradual disappearance from diocesan newspapers of: letters to the editor, serious commentary/op.ed pieces on Church reform such as the recommendations of the Royal Commission to the Australian bishops and their subsequent recalcitrant behaviour.
    It would be very helpful to note under whose episcopal watch did the regression begin.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hullo David TIMBS

      Your suggestion of a systematic, quantitative time-line project investigating the disappearance from diocesan newspapers of: letters to the editor and
      the decline of serious commentary/op.ed pieces has great merit.

      I did study at ACU and this would have been a great research project. Because I am now retired, and have lived through this whole period, I have a general sense of what has occurred.

      My view, though, is that this would need to be a qualitative study looking at the invisible or behind-the-scenes dynamics around constrained publishing in diocesan contexts.

      Last year I wrote to a US ultra-conservative Catholic journalist on his Facebook site and was blocked or de-friended; again last year, I wrote about reform agendas on the Plenary Council site and the first reply I received was that I should ‘leave the Church’. I subsequently received another response from a Plenary Council rep who encouraged me to continue to present my thoughts – so mixed messages!

      Some present Catholic editors are not able to be forthright about any editorial constraints; of course, many may be very comfortable in the work they are doing on behalf of the Church. A Catholic publication that has a high turn-over of editors indicates a problem. I have conducted a longitudinal doctoral study consisting of repeat interviews over 18 months but I am not able to commit to such a study now.

      It is still my view that the blockers are often very human ones, associated with clerical/doctrinal perspective, around such issues as:

      * are divorcees able to receive Holy Communion?
      * are Catholics who use contraception at odds with ‘Humane Vitae’ and what is the role of conscience in these areas?
      * can we envisage having women priests in the future?
      * is there a time when celibacy will be voluntary for Catholic priests?
      * should Catholics be critical of beatification processes which start off at $50,000 and can exceed $250,000?
      * is annulment a Church response to civil divorce offered principally for sincere and conscientious Catholics?

      Most Catholics at the grassroots parish level have long ago moved on from these scenarios but there are formidable conservative forces in Catholic diocesan that will not accept any dilution of traditional Church doctrine.

  5. David Garratt says:

    As usual, thoughtful and accurate comments from Peter.

    Sadly, I see this Plenary Council as akin to the responses of various governments to the Murray-Darling catastrophe – window dressing with any positive outcomes to be buried and raised again in another review several years hence. Yes, I am pessimistic.

    The Bishops could exercise their influence now to change the approach of the Catholic media to a more truly open engagement with those still willing to engage at all with the Church. Such action would signal that they are serious about the rhetoric. The longer they delay such engagement with what is left of their ‘flock’ the greater will be the loss of practicing adherents to our church.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hi David,

      There are substantial grounds for your pessimism. Peter Wilkinson[20117] on this site wrote: “Of all [Plenary]council members, only the bishops, active and retired(possibly 70) will have a deliberative vote.” Will Bishop Morris have a deliberative vote, for example? He posed challenges to the church in Australia among other things, about the role of women in the church and reconciliation and was for his service to the Church, dismissed as a bishop by Rome. In the broader Catholic church there are traditionalists, restorationists, Trids(tridentines), ultra-conservatives and conservatives who are still ill-at-ease about the Reforms of Vatican 11. They represent formidable opposition to reform agendas.

      You indicate that the bishops could change media practices now – to show their good faith. I have copies of letters I submitted and have had published in ‘Together’ (Wagga Wagga) and in the ‘Voice’ (Canberra) but this is not an option now under present editorial guidelines. My understanding is that it was in Archbishop Coleridge’s time in Canberra, rather than under Archbishop Prowse, that the letters column ceased yet it is Archbishop Coleridge who is now so actively inviting Catholics to respond to the Plenary Council process with their concerns.

  6. John Edwards says:

    Thank you, Peter, for highlighting an important contradiction in the official Australian Catholic media in the digital era in its failure to neither engage in nor understand that the internet was set up to promote dialogue and the exchange of ideas. The history of the internet in Australia finds its starting point in the setting up by the major Australian universities of AARNet (Australian Academic Research Network) to promote dialogue and the sharing of ideas between universities. AARNet was subsequently taken over by Telstra to expand the reach of that dialogue to a broader Australian audience. Open discussion and the sharing and contesting of ideas is the very life-blood of the internet. Dialogue not didacticism is what the internet is about. For online publications dialogue takes the form of Letters to the Editor. In the absence of that all you have is didacticism. One can only hope that the 2020 Plenary Council set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference might take to heart the spirit of openness and genuine dialogue which the digital era embraces.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      Hullo John,

      I agree wholeheartedly with your observations. I worked in a university where the VC, Professor Don Aitkin, on behalf of Australian Vice Chancellors, signed off on AARNet. The interaction and communication opportunities offered by the internet are extensive but Facebook, Twitter et al., also have their own powerful, sometimes wilderbeast dynamics. To their credit, Catholic media work actively in some of these areas.

      I have spoken with the former editor of ‘Together’ (Wagga Wagga) and the present editor of ‘Voice’ (Canberra). My impression of these editors was that they possessed high internet, communication and publishing skills. The Australasian Catholic Press Association has as one of its aims the celebration of excellence in communication among members of the Catholic media and has awards with different criteria on its website.

      In my view the problem lies not with the technology platforms but with human blockers [sometimes at the clerical level] and, as I wrote, “reformist agendas cause discomfort to those who are editors, publishers or clergy who have overall responsibility for such publications.” The challenge is to provide more editorial decision-making to editors and always move from didacticism to dialogue, as you indicate.

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