GARRY EVERETT. Archbishop Coleridge and the culture of confusion.

It was disappointing to read the latest comments of Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane on the topics of sexual abuse and the culture of the Church. The comments convey a certain confusion, which could imperil any attempts the Church might make to re-establish trust among its members, and between the members and society at large.

On Monday 18th June , the Archbishop gave an interview on a radio program in Italy called The Crux of the matter. Fragments of that interview were published a few days later. The Archbishop is to be congratulated for airing his views on sexual abuse and the church’s culture. However, the reader or listener needs to be wary about some of the offerings from the Archbishop.

Whilst the two issues of sexual abuse and church culture are strongly related, the Archbishop, who says he has been thinking about church culture for 25 years, appears to be confused about the solutions he offers. 

Consider one of his comments: “if there had been more lay people involved in decision making roles in the past, we wouldn’t have the catastrophe on our hands that we have now.” This statement requires careful consideration. The Archbishop in effect, is arguing that the sexual abuse by priests was largely due to their ordained status. His argument that lay people would have prevented the abuse, is highly speculative and not very credible.

Currently the Catholic Church in Australia has many decision making bodies called parish councils or leadership teams. Their composition is almost entirely of lay people. That composition alone guarantees nothing. Lay people make mistakes too, and one common mistake is not to question the priest on any matter. In some cases, membership is developed on that basis. We need to remind ourselves as well, that the banking industry in Australia was excoriated recently for a wide range of abusive behaviours – and those responsible were all “lay people”. The point is, that it is not whether one is ordained or not that affects good decision making. It is ultimately a matter of integrity.

In the report of the interview, the Archbishop also expresses a certain mistrust of the Australian legal system. He implies that the judicial process of judge, lawyers, witnesses and jury is somehow focussed on “making heads roll” in the Church. Most Australians would not agree with his view. The open, transparent, and public nature of the Australian legal system needs to contrasted with the secret, protected and covered-up mode of administration practiced in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. We should not confuse the two.

As the Catholic Church tries to find ways to change its culture, it should resist creating solutions until it fully understands the problem. For one who has been thinking and writing about church culture for 25 years, we might have expected a more considered approach from Archbishop Coleridge.

The Australian Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of minors, offered some partial description of the culture of the Catholic church. Three of those descriptors were: power; privilege; and the failure to be genuinely participative. Similar aspects were identified in the toxic cultures of many banks. Power, privilege and self interest are not conferred by ordination, nor are they removed by the status of laity within the church. These descriptors are examples of a living culture that distorts reality on a daily basis.

Archbishop Coleridge acknowledges that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that the power of culture to protect itself is a force to be reckoned with. Until the Church engages with professional expertise within, and especially beyond its own borders, in a serious and sustained attempt to understand the nature and power of its own culture, it is doomed to fail.

Hopefully, no one wants to see that happen—again. 

 Now retired some 12 years, Garry spent 40 years as an educator, mostly in the Catholic sector. He has facilitated many change processes within the Church. He maintains a strong interest in the future Church. 

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6 Responses to GARRY EVERETT. Archbishop Coleridge and the culture of confusion.

  1. Trish Martin says:

    The problem cannot be fixed by those whose personality has been formed by the institution because ordained clergy think of themselves as being empowered by God. But the church has made an idol of itself, and fails to mirror the values of Jesus Christ. With this self-serving attitude of power bishops lose the ability to see others with ‘the eyes of the heart’. Bishops must let go of their status and become disciples rather than governors and princes, we need leaders and teachers whose integrity means a sense of personal responsibility for God’s citizens. This was the heart of Christ’s teaching: that you give life to others at the cost of yourself. A healthy church culture would have love for others as its core value for love is a power that transforms blindness and ignorance, and unites all peoples in the spiritual life. Jesus demonstrated at his trial that identity and titles are an illusion and one must become vulnerable in order to live in God’s kingdom.

  2. Garry, you nail the problem, as the three prior posts illustrate. Clericalism is rife in the Church and so long as Archbishop Coleridge sees himself as part of the solution, rather than the problem, he dances a kind of ecclesiastical 3-Steps, with one step forward and two in reverse. The case of child abuse is so institutionally endemic that it cannot be redressed with the bishops at the helm. The most decent and transparent thing is to bring in outside expertise, especially non-Catholic, so that we can lift the veil on cultural practices that even we Catholics cannot see and do not recognise. I have recent experience, as one who attends an Anglican support group for gay men (I reject the equivalent Catholic body which actually proclaims, against all evidence, that sexual orientation can be changed!) of an Anglican parish that is dealing with the challenge of including a convicted pedophile in its congregation, while at the same time accommodating the just claims of its community in regard to the protection of minors. The process is so transparent as to make a Catholic break down and weep: highly consultative, inclusive, in this instance of a Catholic (me), inviting and receiving representations from all parties and, at the very end, establishing a protocol that will work for everybody. Unless and until Archbishop Coleridge recognises and acknowledges the need to relinquish his clerical voice and employ outside facilitators to advance real cultural change, we will continue to dance our ‘No Change Clerical Foxtrot’. Not a pretty sight, with many Catholics having left the dance floor in disgust

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    Perhaps a reasonable strategy might be to sack all Bishops/Archbishops – do away with the position entirely. Each Parish Council is the responsible for vetting/hiring – and firing the priest – from the list of applicants who seek the office – and they are then accountable to the Parish Council – which, by the way – is made up 50:50 male and female. Now there’s a thought from outside the box…

  4. Michael D. Breen says:

    “For one who has been thinking and writing about church culture for 25 years, we might have expected a more considered approach from Archbishop Coleridge.” Seriously? If you put that beside culture eating strategy, Coleridge is incapable cos he is, out of his own mouth, institutionalized.
    The laity hierarchy matter is systemic and complex but what had members of the laity to lose by confronting a bishop or a priest? Heaven? Purgatory? Exorcism?

  5. Joan Seymour says:

    “if there had been more lay people involved in decision making roles in the past, we wouldn’t have the catastrophe on our hands that we have now.” Lay people have been told for years that we must step up and do our part, not leave it all to Father. We usually find out for ourselves that when we do step up, in parish councils, leadership teams etc, our contribution is completely at the mercy of the ordained leader. If Father decides to close down the parish council, he can do it, without reference to the council itself. If Father decides he and his accountant are the finance committee, that happens, and the ‘Committee’ naturally rubber stamps anything the priest wishes to do with the parish finances. If Father decides he’d rather build new accommodation for the priest, he’ll finance it by firing the expensive pastoral associates and parish secretary, without reference to the leadership team or the finance committee. If Father thinks he made a mistake in confirming a decision of the parish council, he can veto it outside of the meeting and without reference to the council. Not all priests, or even most priests, behave like this – but the point is that they can. That’s the meaning of ‘clericalism’, Archbishop. And if an employee uses the excellent archdiocesan complaints procedures for a complaint based on an excellent archdiocesan policy (bullying, for example), she will soon find that the lay person at the top of the management tree can do nothing to address the misdemeanours of a priest. That’s just a fairly ordinary employment misdemeanour. What lay person could possibly affect decisions regarding a paedophile priest? Only ordained persons are even invited to discuss the silly fellow. (Sorry – I know I’m dribbling – personal experiences don’t make rational argument)!

  6. Good, Garry, that yoiu are going back stage and not just being blinded by the front satge image: “So for the most part, how we behave when front stage versus back stage varies quite a bit. When a performance typically reserved for one area makes its way into another confusion, embarrassment, and even controversy can ensue. For these reasons most of us work pretty hard, both consciously and subconsciously, to make sure that these two realms remain separate and distinct”. (see https://www.thoughtco.com/goffmans-front-stage-and-back-stage-behavior-4087971)

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