JACK WATERFORD. We need a Catholic Yom Kippur, and a serious sacrifice.

The major intersection between the child abuse royal commission and the Catholic Church went into act four over the past week. The drama, plot and moral of the miracle play would be much enhanced if scene one, rather than scene four, of act five began with the resignations of each of Australia’s archbishops, along with that of the nuncio, the archbishop representing the Pope in Australia.  

Each is, no doubt, a splendid person whose services would be much missed. But each represents in a real way the organisational and leadership failures that have brought the Church in Australia to its lowest ebb. Mass resignation would be a tiny, inadequate but still entirely appropriate act of atonement – a compound Yom Kippur – for both the personal failings of most of the archbishops, representing Australia’s capital cities, and for the institutional failings of the offices they hold and their predecessors.

Cardinal George Pell, who has become the symbol of the truculent, embattled, irritable and defensive approach of the Catholic hierarchy to what some seemed to think a mere public relations problem, might well resign, too, this time with the Pope accepting it. But Pell no longer has any active responsibility for church affairs in Australia, and a noble gesture by him could never be enough to show that leadership has changed.

No doubt, the creation of some episcopal vacancies would be a bitter blow to the hundreds of thousands – once millions – of Catholic parishioners who would be suddenly deprived of their archbishops’ spiritual guidance, zest for the good life and penchant for travel at the front end of jet aircraft. Likewise, the departure of the nuncio would suddenly deprive us, as well as the bishops, of an immediate conduit to Rome. Rome, acting on advice from successive nuncios, was guilty of acts of commission as much as omission, including in choice of bishops, that helped put Australian Catholics, and Australians, in this pretty pass, and helped delay and frustrate a timely reckoning.

These archbishops have apologised over and over. Now at least, they seem to appreciate that the stewardship of themselves and their recent predecessors has damaged the Church, and their reputations, almost as much as it damaged thousands of lives. But put bluntly, their regrets, tempered with reservations, excuses and continuing dissembling, should not be met with forgiveness and a clean slate.

First, because it is clear that most of them still don’t really get it. If they did, they would have made more fundamental changes to the way the Church operates. Just as importantly, the Church needs pastors and teachers, not the sort of careerists, accountants, managers and autocrats that all too many have shown themselves to be.

I come from within the bosom of the Catholic Church and, from 56 years ago, was a regular altar boy, proficient in my Latin responses (which I understood) to the priest’s words. The early part of the Mass included the confiteor, or confession, and, within it, the server would say “peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere: mea culpa” (here, one theatrically struck one’s tum), “mea culpa” (strike breast again), “mea maxima culpa” (strike breast again): I have sinned exceedingly, in thought, word and deed: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.

A reading of royal commission transcripts made me wonder whether the modern form is “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea minima culpa“. Penance has not yet been performed.

None of the archbishops is said to have personally abused children. But all have been involved in managing dioceses long enough that none can claim complete innocence of the Church’s multiple failures over the scandal of Church sexual abuse. And too many of them now pretend perfect understanding but were a part of the culture of denial, minimisation and anger at, and abuse of, those who drew attention to the problem.

Nor could any say they have been proactive about anticipating the overdue next generation of scandals, involving physical abuse, and critical review of the Church’s role with Aboriginal missions, unmarried mothers, forced adoptions and child farming. They have acted either with total passivity, as if they hope that ignoring the legacies will go away, or pretended that these simply fold neatly into a wider historical problem to which the Church made no, or no additionally evil, contribution.

The Australian Catholic hierarchy, and the conduit to Rome, has yet to have the reckoning that has already taken place in Ireland. Even the most devout and loyal Catholic has no reason to want to see it avoided.

Some of the episcopal witnesses gave well-rehearsed and apparently sincere expressions of contrition and institutional remorse to the royal commissioners during the week. One or two even offered vague criticisms of the Vatican bureaucracy, or their predecessors, or the attitudes and approaches of another era.

The nerve of this lawyer – a woman at that – asking such impertinent questions of an archbishop.

With superb if unintended irony, some of this rich font of Australian clericalism, arrogance and overweening ambition, conceded that the Church, in Australia as much as anywhere, had had a governance problem, and perhaps still has. It does. It’s them.

They pointed to minor organisational changes they recently made to prove it was now entirely different. They talked of better supervision, better “formation” of priests and religious brothers and nuns, and more conscious, active and suspicious environment in which everyone would now work.

They have, or are on the way to getting, the situation reformed. What Christopher Prowse – the transplanted Victorian archbishop who now rules the archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn without any legal accountability to check his power – has called the “scourge of sexual abuse” now seems to be less likely, more likely to be detected and punished when it happens. Most probably, a good many potential predators have now been weeded out of the system even before they had any opportunity to prey on others.

Prowse was recently heavily criticised for his serious error of judgment for declining to attend a healing ceremony for victims of abuse by the Marist Brothers at Pearce. One might not have known this at the royal commission this week, at least until the senior counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, SC, thought Prowse to be overdoing it in his efforts to be the modern-day healer.

According to Prowse, things are now better in the Canberra archdiocese because “I’m taking greater responsibility. Before it was rather diffuse. I wasn’t really sure what was going on …

“There is a determination in me to work with the competent people, mainly laypeople, to be able to change the culture, greater transparency and accountability for what’s happening, and to be able to do that in the public forum in this tragic moment, this chilling moment of the Catholic Church, with these statistics coming out, particularly in the past few weeks, which have chilled us to the core, and me personally.

“It has been heartbreaking to see these statistics nationally, but at the very same time to be able to say ‘well, let us go forward in a completely different way’, that is, a way that we can hold our heads up high and be able to say ‘we’re learning from this’. We have a long way to go, but we are on the way.

“When I go back to my archdiocese, I have it in my heart to go around the diocese in regional areas for listening sessions. I want to gather the victims and their families. I mean, it’s been like a bushfire going through the Catholic Church, or a tsunami effect, on faith and on people’s trust of us. And I don’t want to be sort of seen as some bureaucrat behind an office.

“So I want to go out and – I find the victims I’ve met over the years – I call them ‘wounded healers’. I don’t think we can go ahead without the wounded healers standing alongside us, walking together, correcting us, directing us, working in with us. That’s what I want to do, because there’s huge wisdom already there.

“Indeed it’s part of our Catholic culture to be alongside the periphery, the vulnerable, the children.”

Furness: “Archbishop, you have given evidence of wanting to, and, indeed, having walked with victims and heard what they’ve had to say.” “Yes.”

Furness: “But isn’t it as recent as last November that you were invited to a healing ceremony at the Marist Brothers college or school and you refused to go?”

Prowse: “Well, that was a mistake on my part. I had a perspective of waiting till the royal commission concludes here and then, as the bishop looking after the entire archdiocese, to begin walking with the sex abuse victims and their families, listening to them and then working towards some sort of appropriate liturgy, perhaps a liturgy of lament. But I was then corrected by the victims, and they lamented that I wasn’t there. I thought about it, and I agreed with them. I made a public apology and asked for forgiveness for that. It was a mistake on my part. I had more of a diocesan perspective rather than just the local one.”

Furness: “It was a very recent mistake, if I can suggest that, archbishop.” “Yes.”

Furness: “And somewhat at odds with the evidence you’re giving about how you have learnt from the royal commission, which has now been sitting for four years, and are taking a more survivor-oriented approach. What do you say about that?”

Prowse: “Yes, I agree with you, it was a mistake and I made a public apology and I regret that and am sorry for it.”

Furness: “What are you sorry for?” “That I didn’t attend. I didn’t attend that ceremony.”

Furness: “Have you since attended something similar?”

Prowse: “Well, I have with families, yes, but not in a public – not in a public way …”

Furness: “In your archdiocese, since you’ve been in the position, has there been any public gathering or occasion upon which you’ve given your comments or thoughts in relation to child sexual abuse?”

Prowse: “In written form, yes, and with my Church gatherings, yes, yes, with my priests and with people and in deanery assemblies, yes, I bring it up very often.”

Furness: “But in terms of a public forum for that purpose?”

Prowse: “That to me is the next step which I want to do. I feel the confessing – it’s still the time for the confessing and the bringing of that out. From that, I would like to think that we can then move to more of a liturgical response. But I have been in public forums, yes, on the ecumenical dimension. Yes, there was a very big public forum at Parliament House there recently on an ecumenical level and I was with ecumenical leaders from Canberra. But it wasn’t a Catholic Church one. So the answer to your question is, no, I haven’t, on the Catholic Church aspect, in public forum – looking forward to doing that. Yes, I have done that in the ecumenical dimension on a public level.”

The nerve of this lawyer – a woman at that – asking such impertinent questions of an archbishop. That’s not an ordeal Prowse needs to endure, least of all from women, within his jurisdiction. He’s not famous for listening to anyone. (Indeed, he has recently decided, and without much in the way of consultation of process, to close down the diocese’s (advisory) commission for women and to subsume its functions into the commission into the married life and youth commission.

A bishop, or an archbishop, is accountable only to the Pope. Within his diocese, he is an absolute monarch. With some matters involving the interests of priests or the diocese’s financial interests, he has an obligation to consult priests or church trustees, but he has no obligation to follow their advice.

Church documents themselves describe the bishop’s power as akin to that of a monarch of a feudal principality. Nothing from the sex abuse scandals has caused any of the Australian bishops, certainly none of the penitents before the commission, to actually surrender any powers, even if, at times, they have delegated them, or exercised them through others, or found scapegoats to blame.

Secular government cannot reform the Catholic Church, change its doctrines or depose its officers. But it could give some encouragement to reforms that would not affect the Church’s claims in relation to its (somewhat battered) claim of spiritual ascendancy. The obvious point of pressure is the Church’s tax-free status, but demanding transparent and accountable processes, and proper levels of compensation, in the civil law, can also work.

The Church, if not the bishops, would benefit from a reorganisation that made bishops not only the local representatives of the Pope, but the stewards accountable to their flock. Working under modern, as opposed to feudal, concepts of professionalism, due process, accountability and transparency. Able to be sacked, complained about and appealed against. Chosen perhaps for their personal, pastoral and teaching qualities, rather than blind loyalty to the fonts of advancement. Leading dioceses professionally managed. Perhaps even by women!

Jack Waterford is a former Canberra Times editor. This article was first published in The Canberra Times on February 25, 2017.

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7 Responses to JACK WATERFORD. We need a Catholic Yom Kippur, and a serious sacrifice.

  1. Peter Johnstone says:

    An excellent analysis of the real situation now facing the Catholic Church – a situation of dysfunctional governance in Australia and globally. The Church in Australia will not change without change to the governance of the universal Church. Changes to processes and structures in Australia are not adequate without fundamental reform of the Church’s universal dysfunctional governance and toxic culture of clericalism. Waterford’s last para nicely sums up the dimension of change that is necessary – involving accountability, transparency and inclusion, particularly of women. The “points of government pressure”, such as the Church’s tax-free status, should be used by government if the Church fails to address its global dysfunctional governance. The Catholic Church has the added privilege of Vatican State diplomatic relations with the Australian government; the government must seriously consider breaking off those diplomatic relations with the Vatican if the Church is not prepared to take the necessary steps to practise good ethical governance in Australia and globally.

  2. Jack describes a highly dependent dysfunctional organizational system. Many of the complaints in the article predate by decades the problems of Australian Catholics with bishops, priests and nuncios. However, the laity have colluded with all this for all that time. How often have you seen complainants deal face to face with the power of Bishops? And if Catholics were serious just one Sunday strike where all boycotted mass would convey a message, wouldn’t it?

  3. Joan Seymour says:

    MrWaterford fails miserably to analyse our current position and that of the Bishops. I’d recommend he pay some attention to getting the minor details right before attempting to address the major ones. Not sure why he picks on Chris Prowse, who’s hardly a senior bishop (and is certainly not a ‘transplanted Victorian Archbishop)’ Perhaps it’s because he has a very limited understanding of Church structure and the Archbishop of Canberra is nearest to his parochial view. No,Jack,there’ll be no call for a mass resignation from most surviving Australian Catholics. (Not unless we need rats to desert our sinking barque) . If these bishops need punishment, that will be the burden of rebuilding the raft in the middle of the rapids, which is what we must do. As for the relationship of the government with the Vatican – sure, go for it, but it won’t make the slightest difference to the Vatican! We’ll continue to work on that ourselves, thanks.

  4. Jim KABLE says:

    Peter Johnstone nicely sums up my own thinking! And an excellent analysis of the mea culpa mea culpa mea minima culpa hand-wringing of the Catholic Bishops. Time to revoke taxation concessions till a formal structure with accountability – not only to a foreign power but to our own State and Federal governments is built in. It’s no wonder the Japanese rulers of the 16th and 17th centuries held such suspicions and animosity towards the missionary priests – check out the recently-released brilliant Martin SCORSESE written/directed film Silence – from Catholic Japanese writer ENDOH Shusaku (1966) to get just a taste of that. Time for us here in Australia to implement similar systems for weeding out duplicity in this institution – for making accountability legally obligatory!

  5. Lynne Newington says:

    Chris Prowse response: A bishop or an archbishop is accountable only to the pope resonate’s well with the vow of allegiance referred to by Geoffrey Robinson …”Before ordination as a bishop, every candidate is required to take an oath of loyality to the pope- not God, not the church, but the pope. Every bishop is meant to be “a popes man”, and bishops take this oath seriously”.
    Who can be personally committed to anyone and relied upon to have your best interest’s at heart on this basis……
    Even the good Archbishop Prowse when even the cardinals don’t tow the line with no fear of God.

  6. rumtytum says:

    The church is founded on a greed for power. How likely is it that it will surrender any of that power? It’s a separate nation with its own king, its own courts, its own parliament. And its power reaches into the puny instruments of our democracy. How many catholic educated politicians are making decisions on behalf of us non-believers? How likely is it that they will act in our interests where they conflict with the interests of the church?

  7. Politicians all knew 25 years ago and did nothing says:

    The Catholic Church Archbishops and Bishops have known about abuse of children (as have Australian politicians) and not acted for many decades. Politicians know it is ‘political suicide’ to take on the Catholic Church.
    (The Vatican’s strategy to attack politicians is effective (see examples in USA).
    The next stage to this horrific and devastating indictment against Australia children requires both major political parties take a united approach and joint action.
    Peter Johnstone is correct, ‘The Church in Australia will not change without the change to the governance of the universal Church. Changes to processes and structures in Australia are not adequate without fundamental reform of the Church’s universal dysfunctional governance and toxic culture of clericalism.’
    However in the mean time –
    The removal of Vatican Diplomatic Relations with Australia. Th Vatican has interfered in the countries civil law (see Ireland’s actions and example),
    The removal of Bishops from the sole management of Catholic Education Institutions,
    The removal of Federal and State government funding to Catholic Education Schools and Social Services unless proper accountability and transparency measures are in place and there is democratic and inclusive management.
    New laws with high penalties for concealment of abuse,
    New laws for the Catholic churches to disclose funds used on its protection from scandal (Does anyone know where did the church legal funds come from – government education funds??) and
    National mandatory reporting for Bishops could be a start.
    Removal of Tax-Free Status and
    Corporation Status (see the USA) would hurt the Bishops because in their roles they have protected church assets at the expense of children.
    Legal action to investigate Bishops ‘neglect of responsibility to children in schools under their care operating a secret legal system that shielded paedophile clergy from criminal trials.’
    This is a start…
    I wonder if we take out the word ‘clergy’ and replace it with ‘bikies’ if the government response would be different?
    I don’t think the ‘bikies’ would have got away with abuse of 1000’s of children for 50 years!

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