You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see prayer making international news headlines, but then there was nothing ordinary about the story of the little girl called Cleo Smith from the Western Australian coastal town of Carnarvon whose weeks-long disappearance had the whole world storming heaven.
When four-year-old Cleo was found alive and well 18 days after her abduction from a camping site 75kms north of the town, it was hailed as a miracle and answer to prayers, which Fr Steve Casey, parish administrator at St Mary’s Star of the Sea at Carnarvon, agrees is an accurate assessment.
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly on 4 November, the day after Cleo’s dramatic police rescue from a house just a few minute’s drive from her own home, Fr Steve said that he, for one, had never prayed so hard in all his life and would offer the next Sunday Mass in thanksgiving for the little girl’s safe return.
Many were praying
“I think that’s true of many people here and around Australia, I know many parishes and religious communities right across the world were praying for Cleo,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
“The good news is that she is found, and it’s brought the whole community together, it’s brought the whole world together.
“It’s like the sombre mood that was like a pall of sadness over the town has been lifted and now everybody’s celebrating.”
Criminologists: rescue ‘surprising’
News of Cleo’s discovery went viral, with many including the Prime Minister Scott Morrison shedding tears of relief and thanking God for her safe return. That earned him a backlash on social media from people who said it would be better to thank the Western Australian police for their extraordinary resourcing and diligence in searching for the little girl, along with federal police and volunteers who aided the search.
But Fr Steve, who hosted a prayer vigil in the church asking God to protect Cleo and return her safely to her mother Ellie Smith, stepfather Jake Gliddon and baby sister, has no doubt that God was in it too, particularly as fears for her safety had grown more grave with each passing day.
Indeed, her survival has been remarked upon by criminologists as a surprise, with one declaring it a rare ‘black swan event’ considering the circumstances.
‘God works through people’
“I like to think it is a miracle, but it’s a miracle that God worked through people,” Fr Steve said. “That’s how God works, through ordinary people.”
Cleo is in the pre-kindergarten class at St Mary Star of the Sea School in Carnarvon, a “lovely little school” says Fr Steve, which has 340 students up to Year 12. With an approximate population of 5,000 inhabitants, Carnarvon is situated on the coast of WA approximately 900 kilometres north of Perth.
Principal Steve O’Halloran said that the tight-knit school community had received immediate psychological support from Catholic Education Western Australia and that it had united in prayer for Cleo’s safe return.
Students and staff had gathered to pray for her as a whole school community and also in individual classrooms and at home with their own families each day through the ordeal.
Now the focus was on keeping united in support of Cleo’s family while respecting their dignity and privacy.
‘The best possible outcome’
“To have her home is the best possible outcome after 18 days and now we hope and pray that things will continue to go well for Cleo and her family,” Mr O’Halloran told The Catholic Weekly. “We’re happy to support them and whenever they want Cleo to come back here to St Mary’s we are more than happy to have her, but that’s her parents’ decision to make.”
He said the school and wider town community is used to helping each other through tough times and that psychological and pastoral support would continue to be available to the whole school community.
While it was a moment of “pure elation” for the whole town of about 5000 residents, Fr Steve said he had also been asked why some people’s prayers are not answered in the way they hope, or why God would allow such an ordeal to occur at all.
“We believe that God loves and cares for each one of us, so why do bad things happen? How do we address the question of why do we have pain and suffering in the world?” he pondered.
“My reasoning is that we don’t necessarily have to have an answer to those questions.
“It’s ok to sit with that uncertainty and know that nonetheless, even in the darkest times of our lives and even if our prayers don’t seem to be answered, God is still present to us.
“I like to think of the Good Shepherd analogy Jesus gave us. He carries us in our vulnerability – when we need him we can be sure that somehow he is with us.
“In the whole of one’s life’s journey, sometimes our prayers are not necessarily answered in the way we would hope or expect, but in the long sweep of life, looking back for instance when we are older, we will see in hindsight that God did help us but in a different way.”
Western Australia media reported that a local man, Terence Darrell Kelly, 36, was charged with two offences including child stealing and is in custody in a maximum security facility in Perth. He will appear in court again on 6 December.