FRANK BRENNAN SJ. The Catholic wrap-up at the Royal Commission.

But in the past, these spiritual leaders were also professing their commitment to an institution which commanded their hierarchical obedience and clerical acquiescence in protecting the institution’s public reputation and its coffers.  

We have just emerged from what the media calls ‘the Catholic wrap up’ at the Royal Commission. This three-week hearing culminated in the joint appearance of the five most senior bishops in our Australian Church. They apologised not just for the sins of those church personnel who violated children, the most vulnerable members of our church community. They apologised and acknowledged also the gross failures of their predecessors and other church authorities who failed to act resolutely and compassionately in relation to the perpetrators and the victims, labelling their responses as ‘scandalously insufficient, hopelessly inadequate, scandalously inefficient’, as ‘a kind of criminal negligence’, ‘totally, totally inadequate. Just totally wrong’. Some ‘were just like rabbits in the headlights. They just had no idea what to do, and their performance was appalling.’

Here were our most senior church leaders admitting that in the past there were church authorities seeking to serve two masters, and failing completely. No doubt those past church authorities were professing their faith in, commitment to and discipleship with Jesus who said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ (Mt 19:4) But in the past, these spiritual leaders were also professing their commitment to an institution which commanded their hierarchical obedience and clerical acquiescence in protecting the institution’s public reputation and its coffers. We are now left in no doubt: No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.’

It’s time to put past victims and present and future children first. And make no mistake, our church leaders are not yet out of the blaze of the headlights. They don’t have all the answers, not even in relation to matters peculiarly within their jurisdiction. Despite being put on notice, our most senior bishops could not even agree on the limits of the seal of the confessional and on what a priest should do if abuse were reported in the confessional by a child. It’s not just our past leaders who needed help. Our present leaders also do, and that help must come from you the competent laity who as the parents of children know in the core of your being how dreadful and unacceptable is anything that might put children at risk.

Paul tells the Corinthians: ‘My brothers and sisters: Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.’  Addressing that breakdown of trust and the clericalist mind-set which has separated the leaders from the people, Bishop Vincent Long, the Bishop of Parramatta who came to Australia as a Vietnamese refugee, told the commission:

It’s no secret that we have been operating, at least under the two previous pontificates, from what I’d describe as a perfect society model where there is a neat, almost divinely inspired, pecking order, and that pecking order is heavily tilted towards the ordained. So, you have the pope, the cardinals, the bishops, religious, consecrated men and women, and the laity right at the bottom of the pyramid. I think we need to dismantle that model of Church. If I could use the biblical image of wineskins, it’s old wineskins that are no longer relevant, no longer able to contain the new wine, if you like. I think we really need to examine seriously that kind of model of Church where it promotes the superiority of the ordained and it facilitates that power imbalance between the ordained and the non-ordained, which in turn facilitates that attitude of clericalism. 

Bishop Long told the royal commission:

I think we are all products of our life experiences and being a refugee provides me with that particular vantage point through which I form relationships with people, I evaluate their individuality, their personal stories, their dignity. I was also a victim of sexual abuse by clergy when I first came to Australia, even though I was an adult, so that had a powerful impact on me and how I want to, you know, walk in the shoes of other victims and really endeavour to attain justice and dignity for them. 

At the end of last Friday’s hearing, Archbishop Denis Hart issued a statement as president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference saying:

What we have learnt from our involvement in the Royal Commission case studies and our own work in coming to a better understanding of the many different issues that have contributed to child sexual abuse in the Church will inform our future policies and practices. The work of the Commission staff and the Commissioners themselves has no doubt been gruelling and challenging and, along with the rest of the Australian community, we owe them a debt of gratitude for their years of service.

There are some things the royal commission will be able to recommend to government and to our parliaments. They will recommend a national redress scheme and will prescribe protocols and basic standards for child protection. Despite the horrific statistics from the past, we can at least take heart that the New South Wales Ombudsman which provided the royal commission with a lot of statistical information has advised that since 2010 ‘notification rates and sustained finding rates for allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual offences are similar across the government, Catholic, and independent school “industry groups” – an indicator that the systems in place for identifying and responding to allegations are generally working consistently across the schools sector’. But we are members of a society where child sexual abuse is still occurring in families and institutions at horrific rates.

There are some things which only the Church itself will be able to fix. For the first time since 1937, the Australian bishops have announced that a synod is to be held in three years’ time. All proposals for breaking down the culture of clericalism need to be on the table. Our church will be credible for your children and grandchildren only if church authority is seen to be exercised transparently, accountably and inclusively. The coming generations have no interest in an institution whose leaders ask, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?’ They know that it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things, as do church authorities seeking to serve two masters. Notions of tradition, authority, and community have taken a great battering in our post-modern world. When announcing the 2020 plenary council of our Church, Archbishop Coleridge said last August, ‘I think we have to accept the fact that Christendom is over – by which I mean mass, civic Christianity. It’s over.’ That was plain for all to see last week when our key bishops were called to account by the state. There were five black suited, silver crossed archbishops being cross-examined by a woman, in public, demanding that the questions be answered and not fudged!

These are extracts from a homily of Fr Frank Brennan at Holy Trinity Church, Curtin, on 26 February 2017.

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7 Responses to FRANK BRENNAN SJ. The Catholic wrap-up at the Royal Commission.

  1. Dr John CARMODY says:

    It is hardly surprising that the NSW Ombudsman has reported that “notification rates and sustained finding rates for allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual offences are similar across the government, Catholic, and independent school ‘industry groups'” but his reason may be incorrect. Of course it is good that “the systems in place for identifying and responding to allegations are generally working consistently across the schools sector”; but surely the “reason” is just as likely to be that there are almost no ‘religious’ personnel teaching in those schools?
    Dr Brennan cites the gospel of Matthew — where Jesus is quoted as saying [Mt 19:4] ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them! For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ — and we heard a bit more of that in and around the Commission in recent weeks. But so often they’re just words. I think that a real issue is that (to my knowledge) the Catholic Church has formulated little or nothing in terms of a “theology of the child or of childhood”. Even in the complete edition of the “Documents of Vatican II” there is astonishingly little about children and most of that it trite and trivial. Even if they were well-intentioned (and not simply careerists), those Bishops (and the priests and people whom they’re supposed to care for and nurture) have next to nothing to guide them.
    And that leads to an unmentioned consequence of celibacy — beyond the all-too-evident personal and emotional impoverishment and etiolation — the fact that priests and Bishop have no real experience of children. Having come from a family in which there were siblings is just not enough. They have no experiences of the personal and psychological challenges (and rewards) of bringing up and loving relationships with children. They simply cannot appreciate what is involved in providing for the physical and emotional needs of children — caring for their health, their education and their developing capacity for relationships. Is is any surprise, then, that they seem (from their stereotypical behaviour) incapable of understanding them — of truly and deeply valuing, loving and nourishing them?
    Celibacy is subject to post-facto rationalisation and praise, In truth it was all about securing money and property for the Church — but at enormous cost, as we now should see clearly — both to the priesthood and to the rest of the Church, not to mention to its most vulnerable members. And, fundamentally, that is a matter of a lack of understanding and respect.

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    And this is the latest from Rome whether conducive or not to the wrap with the Royal Commission here in Australia.
    https://cruxnow.com/global-church/2017/02/25/pope-quietly-trims-sanctions-sex-abusers-seeking-mercy/

  3. Think that the cerical hierarchy will allow decisionors to be made and hopefully imlpemented , which will make life uncomfortable for the clerics? A complete culture change is necessary but not likely from an old process like a Synod says:

    Archbishops Harts comments on behalf of Australian Bishops is a typical evasive statement. It reads as though the Bishops still have no idea as to what to do about the problem, past, present and future.
    The proposed Synod runs the risk of being a talk fest. Does any lay person seriously thinkthink thst

  4. As one trained as a Jesuit starting 1954, in what now looks like the last gasp of monasticism I agree with John Carmody’s comments on the deprivation which formed part of our training especially with regard to the understanding of children. I put down my many failings as a step parent to this deprivation and institutionalization. Those of us trained thus have something missing. A vow of chastity we were told was so that we could love everybody without exclusion. It meant we loved nobody.
    George Elford an ex-Jesuit educationalist with whom I worked in Ireland used say, “Training for the priesthood was training for nothing; not even the priesthood”.
    However, if change can come from the periphery the Vatican may start to see training differently as a result so some of the presentations to the Commission on training for the priesthood.

    • Lynne Newington says:

      My mind automatically goes back to a letter to the Catholic leader written by ex priest Noel Lane of Kirwan Qld sometime ago:
      Ex-priests are men who are ordained, but have chosen to marry. Although we hear much about the sanctity of married life, an ex-priest’s family is not officially recognised because he has renounced his vow of celibacy. This puts him one step above excommunication, as one man described it. The official spokesman for the church said, from an official point of view, priests were not on the lowest rung of the ladder they were off the ladder.
      Presumably, it would be more forgivable if these men were to carry on illicit affairs in the parish and be forced to maintain any illegitimate children while being a potential target for public media sensation.
      Would the real Holy Spirit please stand up.
      Here’s hoping you fared better than the writer of the article.

  5. Peter Williams says:

    Having served on a Diocese sexual abuse Committee for 12 years’9 as convenor I can only thank Fr. Brennan for his full and franks understanding the implications that sexual abuse has on the victim of such abuse.

    Having spent my working life as a professional social worker have worked with many dysfunctional people whose dysfunction was due to abuse especially sexual/emotional/ psychological. The damage those suffered were in many cases nigh on irreparable. The concern I was left with was the lack understanding of the perpetrator had on their victim.

  6. Steve Jordan says:

    I wonder if the best approach to renewal in the Catholic Church in Australia might be for the Royal Commission to urge the archbishops to appoint a professional and independent group to manage the upcoming synod. This synod is a major opportunity for the members of the Catholic Church to recover control from the clerics; as in other situations, independence is never given, it is seized.
    This process could be initiated by someone who has experience in such major organisational change, a person who has chaired one of the many enquiries into the police, for instance, and preferably a woman.
    At the end of this long process, all clerics, male and female, would be accountable to new bodies representing the local Church. Clerics at all levels would be elected by the local Church.
    Interesting times, without doubt.

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