The royal commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse continues to fill us with dread that we have not yet adequately identified why the incidence of abuse reported in our institutions is higher than in other churches. The divisions amongst our bishops, previously unreported and unknown previously to many of the faithful, are disheartening. Just this week we have heard Bishop Geoffrey Robinson who was an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Pell when he was archbishop of Sydney telling the royal commission that His Eminence ‘had lost the support of the majority of his priests and that alone made him a most ineffective bishop’. Cardinal Pell is the most promoted Catholic cleric in Australian history. The point is not whether Bishop Robinson is right or wrong. The point is that we are part of a social institution which is suffering an acute loss of institutional coherence when an auxiliary bishop sees a need to make such a public statement about his erstwhile archbishop.
Two days ago at that royal commission a letter was tendered for all the world to see. It is a letter from Bishop Robinson to His Excellency Archbishop Franco Brambilla who was the papal nuncio here in 1996. According to Bishop Robinson, the nuncio had earlier asserted that there was no such thing as child sexual abuse in the Italian Church. The nuncio had written to Robinson castigating him for criticising the Vatican for being too slow to respond to child abuse in the Church. Robinson had been speaking at a conference dealing with sexual abuse at Sydney University, attended by ‘about 40 victims and 40 journalists’. One of the participants had suffered abuse at the hands of a Melkite bishop (who died in 2012). Bishop Robinson replied on 8 June 1996:
Turning now to the particular case, I was well aware that in the audience I was speaking to there was a woman who for nearly twelve months had been the victim of the sexual abuse of Bishop George Riashi. He admitted the abuse to Bishop Peter Connors and to yourself at the end of 1993. He also admitted it to the victim in the presence of Bishop Connors. You reported the matter to ‘Rome’ and he was withdrawn from Australia in November 1994. In the month before that, during the last Synod, Cardinal Clancy and Bishop Connors personally informed the Cardinal Prefect of the Oriental Congregation of all aspects of the matter.
From overseas Bishop Riashi continued to insist that he was still Eparch of Australia and would be returning. In June 1995 this was confirmed in a public letter from the Melkite Patriarch. In August 1995, however, Bishop Riashi was instead promoted to be Archbishop of Tripoli in Lebanon. In this capacity he then returned to Sydney in August-September and made many public statements about his innocence and about bad people who sought to discredit him. He succeeded in turning many people against his own victim so that they blamed her rather than him.
Bishop Robinson went on to say to the Apostolic Nuncio: ‘In the matter of Bishop Riashi ‘Rome’ has been of no assistance whatsoever to the Church in Australia. It has, instead, created the potential for a massive scandal in this country.’ I daresay none of us had any idea that this sort of thing was going on. How could it have been possible for such a man to be further promoted in the church hierarchy when there had been admission of such wrongdoing and full disclosure to all relevant church authorities just 20 years ago? How could the papal nuncio who knew all this be writing to castigate a bishop who was saying that there must be a better way, especially when that bishop was the one steering the bishops’ conference at that time to finalise the Towards Healing protocol?
So things are not easy. They are not easy for me as a Catholic priest in the public square. They are not easy for those of you turning up to work each day in your healthcare facilities to further the mission of the Church. They remain wretched for many victims who doubt that the Church can again be trusted. I thank you for your perseverance and pray that together we can make a better fist of holding out to the world the face and hands of Christ.
The above extracts are from an address to the Catholic Health Australia Conference on 26 August 2015. The full text was published in Eureka Street.