Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

‘There is nothing on this earth as ugly as the Catholic Church

And nothing so beautiful’ (Cardinal John Henry Newman)

A letter to fellow members of St Mary Magdalene’s Parish, Rose Bay

I have found great beauty in the Catholic Church. Inspired by the Eucharist, I joined the Catholic Church over 30 years ago. That inspiration remains. Despite its failures the Church remains for me the greatest influence for good in the world. I am grateful for its worldwide works of justice, mercy and charity. At the local parish level I have found wise and generous leadership along with a pulsing, lively and loving community of believers. I hold in highest affection the women and particularly the Sisters in the Church who day after day “keep the show on the road”. I will never leave this Church. But I am greatly disturbed by the state of affairs into which we have allowed the Church to drift.

The problem of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

This abuse is the ultimate in the violation of the human person, the human spirit and the soul. It is an appalling betrayal of trust by priests, religious and some lay people. Many parents were too ashamed to report rapists to the police.

Sexual abuse is an awful part, but it is only a part of a wider problem – the systemic abuse of clerical power.

The former president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, Philip Wilson, said only recently that the abuse crisis is ‘the biggest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia”.

This abuse has stemmed from many factors and influences.

  • We have a male Church; a very patriarchal church. Sexual abuse is largely but not entirely a male problem. Blokes get the rank and glory and make most of the mistakes
  • Obligatory celibacy.
  • The mystique of priesthood – ‘Yes Father, No Father’. Adult Christians should behave as adults and recognise both the strengths and weaknesses in each of us.
  • The issue of abuse was made public by the secular media and not the Church. The secular media has done the Church a great service.
  • Both John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later Benedict XVI) ignored the issue. They were silent or defensive. This is an unpalatable fact that we must face. The cardinals and bishops gave loyalty to silent Popes. Criminality was allowed to fester. Our leadership let us down. The Vatican lost touch with the Church of the Faithful.
  • The Vatican was able to do this because it was not really accountable. The Curia lives in a remote thought bubble. It could hardly be said to comprise “servants of the servants of God”. Problems continued because power and control flowed from the top, as in all absolute monarchies.
  • Many of the hopes of Vatican II have been allowed to run into the sand…. synods of dioceses, local bishops’ conferences, global collegiality and much more.
  • The faithful were ignored or remained quiet. Maybe we have got the church today that we deserve. It is certainly not the church that Christ wants. We should remember that the early Catholic Church in Australia was a lay Church. Priests and the hierarchy came later.
  • It would be a mistake to shrug our shoulders and say that these horrific crimes against children can be left to the new Pope. The evidence is that the silence and avoidance under John Paul II was continued under Benedict XVI.
  • Too often the Church passed the problem to the police and lawyers when it was fundamentally a moral and governance issue for the Church itself.

‘The problem’ is not a passing issue. The Royal Commission will be with us for at least three years and probably more.

Expressing sorrow and contrition will be essential, but it will not be sufficient. The apology by Kevin Rudd and the Australian Government and people to the Stolen Generation and indigenous people was genuine and heartfelt. We all felt better about ourselves. But has much changed as a result? Indifference seems to have won the day! Will it win again in this crisis in the Catholic Church?

Until there is genuine reform, the church will continue in its trauma.

The whole Church, including the large majority of priests and religious, is tainted by this scandal.

Many Catholics are discouraged.

At the local level we are in a sense living in a parallel church that is out of alignment with the hierarchical church.

What could we do in the parish?

  1. Continue to express sorrow for the damage the church has done to so many people. This should be expressed consistently in Prayers of the Faithful. The prayers should extend to those giving evidence to the Royal Commission that they find the courage to speak fearlessly. There should be regular reports on what the parish is doing about the issue.
  2. Establish a fund to ensure that people who have been damaged are properly advised and referred to professionals in the field. Appoint a lay person – perhaps a parent – to co-ordinate this work.
  3. Elect, not select, members of the parish council and the finance committee.
  4. Appoint a parish group to consult with the Archdiocese on future appointments of the parish priest
  5. Issue a statement by the parish on how we would like to see the church reformed. This would presumably include such matters as the selection of bishops, women in the church and obligatory celibacy. This would be forwarded to other parishes, the archdiocese and the papal nuncio.
  6. Call specifically for annual archdiocesan synods which have a majority of lay people. The Anglican model could be helpful.
  7. Make a submission to the Royal Commission focusing on the issue of accountability, not just within the Catholic Church, but in all organisations dealing with young and vulnerable people.
  8. Cooperate as much as possible with other parishes.
  9. Organise a series of parish/public meetings on abuse. Possible speakers – Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Christine Kenneally., Danny Gilbert and Frank Sullivan.
  10. Review the extent to which money raised in the parish is paid to the archdiocese. We should be very careful about paying parish money to organisations that are not accountable to us. This leverage should be exercised. Perhaps it is the only real leverage we have.

Christ will not abandon the Church, but we must be resolute and courageous in the crisis we face. This is unknown territory. There will be risks, but there will be rewards if we can build a reformed Church. It will then be a Church of greater beauty and less ugliness.

Peace be with you

John Menadue

13 February 2013, Ash Wednesday


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