The Catholic Church’s World Youth Day (WYD) which Sydney is hosting in July has been sold to the general public on the basis that it will bring a massive boost to the local economy.

Heard it before? Much the same argument was used to persuade Sydneysiders to accept the monstrous security “lockdown” and mass disruption caused by the APEC summit attended by President George Bush and 20 other world leaders, emperors and dictators last September.

The Iemma Government and WYD organisers are spruiking up the festival and the visit by Pope Benedict XVI and trying to allay public concern about the closure of roads (300 of them across the city!), the cancellation of buses, trains and ferries and the massive taxpayer subsidy running into tens of millions of dollars.

One Crikey subscriber phoned CountryLink recently to make a rail booking from Canberra to Sydney during the holy event and was told the services had been suspended for its duration.

WYD communications director Jim Hanna, a former AAP political correspondent, still believes that the event from July 14 to 20 will attract 125,000 overseas pilgrims.

“We are in regular contact with the bishops’ conferences in most of the main countries (and) we check the numbers they give us all the time,” he told The Oz. “What they’re telling us at the moment is that number of 125,000 is about right.”

Oh really? Well, what the Immigration Department is telling Crikey is something quite different. Only 17,000 visas have been issued so far to overseas attendees. Of course, there could be a late rush – there usually is – and the numbers may double or even treble. But that will still be well below the forecasts of Cardinal George Pell and Premier Morris Iemma. And that means the taxpayers will be left holding a huge bill for yet another event fiasco.

What’s slashing the number of potential visitors is the strong Aussie dollar, the rising cost of air fares and the vast distance overseas pilgrims need to travel to reach Sydney from the strongholds of Catholicism in Europe, South America and North America.

The estimated cost of the week-long event is $150 million and rising. The biggest single taxpayer-funded contribution is $41 million to the Australian Jockey Club for the use of Randwick racecourse for a full papal mass and for renovations to Warwick Farm.

This outrageous payment could have been avoided if the mass had been held at Olympic Park, the site of the 2000 Olympics at Homebush, as it was originally intended.

But the Catholic elders stiff-armed the Iemma Government which caved in and switched the venue to the inappropriate racetrack. Taxpayers are now footing the bill for that craven stupidity.

Pope Benedict, who has arrived in the US to meet President Bush and address the United Nations, has said he is “deeply ashamed” over the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and has vowed to stop pedophiles becoming priests.

Let’s hope the German-born Joseph Ratzinger stiffens his message by the time he reaches Sydney by vowing to stop priests becoming pedophiles. Heaven knows, we desperately need some positives out of this fiasco-in-the-making.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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