GARRY EVERETT. Inertia or Inability?

Inertia or inability? How best to describe the response of the Australian Catholic Bishops to findings of the Royal Commission into the Sexual abuse of Minors? Admittedly the case of Cardinal Pell has dominated the media of recent weeks, but as Paul Collins observed in these columns recently, the response of the Bishops to this case, has been muted, and characterised by expressions of incredulity and lament.The Cardinal Pell case was prosecuted outside the workings of the Royal Commission, and should in no way be regarded as the final chapter of the Church’s response to the Commission. General reform in the Australian Catholic Church has hardly begun.

Compare for a moment, the responses of the banks and other financial organisations to the findings of the Royal Commission into their performances. Firstly, they quickly, if reluctantly, admitted to revelations of the betrayal of trust placed in them by the public. They accepted that their cultures had put “greed before people”. They began processes of restitution, and in some cases, dismissed those who were seen to be largely responsible for allowing the toxic cultures to flourish. Recently one senior bank executive indicated his belief, that it was not the case of a few bad apples in the barrel, but rather that it was the case of a rotten barrel.

On the other hand, the Australian Catholic Church, confronted with similar findings, especially that of “valuing image above the victim”, appears to be marking time. The call for cultural change has been ignored. No leadership changes have occurred, apart from Bishop Wilson who was found guilty of covering up crimes, and in the Statement of Commitment on the Bishops national website, (a statement of intended actions following the findings of he Royal Commission), no mention is made of intentions or plans to change the culture of the Church

References are often made by the bishops to the proceedings of the Plenary Council—a consultative process involving the whole Church in Australia. One needs to recall that this Council was not established in response to the Royal Commission. Some would argue that it was established by the Bishops to distract Catholics from the findings of the Commission. As an instrument of the Bishops it bears the usual characteristics of lack of transparency, control from above through Canon Law, and decision making on the outcomes by clerics only. The Council is not an instrument designed to produce cultural change, whatever changes it might produce.

Cultural change is what is required, but the Bishops seem at a loss as to how to lay out the content and processes for such change to be nurtured.

We need to remind ourselves that the Royal Commission, more than 2 year ago, identified the CAUSE of all the sexual abuse within the Church. This was the most significant contribution made by the Commission, yet it is the one that has received almost no attention from the Bishops. Their rhetoric does match the reality. The Commission laid out quite clearly in a sentence or two, that the cause was a culture of clericalism. Such a culture is characterised by inordinate power and privilege enjoyed by priests and bishops; by a lack of transparency and accountability, and by a failure to engage the laity in serious discussions and decision making

What should the Bishops do?

One approach would be for the bishops to work with the laity and religious congregations in a collaborative way, to describe in detail the current toxic culture. Until it is understood in all its manifestations, it cannot be changed. Secondly the proposed group should then describe the preferred culture and develop ways for it to be nurtured .

One example springs to mind from recent times. I was in a parish Church for Sunday Mass which was to be celebrated by a Bishop making a pastoral visit to the parish. He entered the Church in full regalia, including the tall mitre (hat) and carrying an elaborate crozier (the equivalent of a shepherd’s staff). He proceeded down the main aisle thumping the crozier into the floor in an exaggerated way. It was theatre, but it was also the culture manifesting itself: all the power and prestige, all separating him effectively from the members of the worshipping community, and all un-necessary. One thinks of Queen Elizabeth on her pastoral meetings with her people. What a difference.

How long will the Bishops take to address the cause and not just the symptom?

Now is the time.

The Church in Australia is ripe for change. As Einstein once said: “ No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it……….. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from new angles, requires creative imagination.” The Australian Catholic Church has at its disposal people who can provide the ways forward. These people need to be liberated from all that is holding them back, and holding back the Spirit, who is the God of new things.

If the Bishops don’t ”let go and let God”, they will not only miss the boat, but also risk drowning in its departing wake. Perhaps the Bishops suffer from both inertia and inability, and the co-dependency they foster.

Garry is a retired educator, member of the Catholic Church, and is interested in developing new approaches to emerging problems, particularly within the Catholic Church in Australia.


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8 Responses to GARRY EVERETT. Inertia or Inability?

  1. Carey McIver says:

    Thank you Garry for your clear articulation of the cause of our malaise – unaccountable clericalism. Many are launching their own boats to chart a new way of being church. Home masses with emotionally mature and intelligent clergy who see God’s gifts in us all and not a function of the nonsense of ontological change. I wonder if we are co -responsible for this malaise by remaining with an institution that appears to generally lack the awareness or the will to change. The formation of our clergy and the import of overseas priests is perpetuating a culture that is increasingly irrelevant to those seeking a meaningful personal relationship with God

  2. julia caroline ross says:

    it’s past time for the laiety to be consulted and to become part of the decision making arm of the Church. At Mass recently I was quite shocked at how out of touch the Church is with local affairs, and the lack of humanity.

  3. Mark Prytz says:

    Bishop Wilson was found guilty of covering up crimes, that’s a fact.
    The legal provision is that you have to have knowledge of the allegation AND BELIEVE what was told to you.
    His conviction was set aside because the Appeal Judge accepted that Wilson did not “believe” the allegations he was told about.
    A very duplicitous defence which worked on Judge Roy Ellis.

    The silence from the bishops and others comes from fear.
    Why would any cleric be afraid?
    “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” John 4:18

    • J Knight says:

      I’d suggest a “man with red lips” was found guilty – whom ever that person was.

  4. Trish Martin says:

    Inertia or inability? I think its inability, because at ordination all priests believe that a man’s very being is elevated to a level of existence superior to that of other human beings, and consecration to the level of bishop is another form of separation from the world of the laity. This belief in ontological connection needs to be challenged because it implies that the clerics spiritual connection is stronger than his own humanity. Surely this is a false belief since Ontology is not a permanent state of being because the life of God is dynamic by nature and so whilst it can break into human nature for a time, there are times when human nature can assert its own needs over the clerics spiritual connection. Ontology does not come about as elevation when one is disconnected from people’s experience of being a person, rather it happens when one is radically changed in total selfless service to another human being. Parents can be ontologically changed when their baby’s very survival is in a very fragile condition.
    The clerical belief shows that despite the history of criminal negligence dating back decades, Church leaders have absolved themselves from responsibility to the laity and the safety of their children. The Church has brought about its own undoing through lack of governance and accountability, and denial of their human nature. Francis Sullivan has pointed out recently that 70% of Catholics consider bishops to be untrustworthy.

  5. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    What stays with me as I reflect on these issues is this: the diagnosed ‘culture of clericalism’ – so well-described by Kieran Tapsell – has come as a frightening revelation to many Catholics. The ‘pontifical secret’, of which most people I have known in my now-long life, have been wholly unaware.
    This means that members of the laity, in their dealings with priests, have been always dealing with a person whose true allegiances are to a foreign entity (the Pope) when the laity have believed that they are dealing with a person fundamentally ‘one of us’ – yet special. The relationship between ‘Faithful’ and ‘Clerics’ has been, at least since 1922 (Crimen Sollicitationis) one of subterfuge, betrayal and treachery. That is: ALL priests, have misled ALL ‘the Faithful’. That is No Relationship – at All.

  6. carey burke says:

    Garry, you ask whether it is inertia or inability which accounts for the Australian Catholic Bishops tardiness in responding to the findings of the Royal Commission? The following observations may point to part of an explanation.

    The majority of our bishops were appointed during the John Paul II/Benedict XVI papacies. Unblemished docility to the Roman Magisterium was the primary criterion for being selected as a potential bishop: notice of an offer of appointment was made with a requirement that the priest take an oath of fidelity promising never to say or do anything that contradicted any relevant Roman Magisterium guideline. When this oath had been taken and witnessed then the formal offer of episcopal appointment could be made. (Francis may or may not continue with this protocol.) Hence it is not surprising that the default position of the bishops is to “wait for Rome to say something.”

    A further complication is that many, possibly almost all of the current cohort of Australian Bishops would reject the suggestion that Church culture is toxic and in need of the level of re-mediation you and many others are demanding. They sit more comfortably inside the understandings of Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis, and employ the JohnPaul II/Ratzinger hermeneutic of continuity to bypass the more confronting teachings contained in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes.

    Proceeding from their understanding, they are not doing nothing, but they will only do what Rome explicitly permits: hence the Plenary Council. But you can bet that there is a press release being prepared for later this year explaining that a significant number of proposals submitted for consideration will not form part of the PC’s deliberations – as these particular submissions are out side the competence of a Plenary Council, as outlined in the 1983 Code.

    None of which detracts from your observation that they (the Bishops) will probably miss the boat – again!!

  7. J Knight says:

    The statement “Bishop Wilson who was found guilty of covering up crimes” is not true as he was acquitted on appeal.

    As for the laity dropping the ball, indeed, like politicians, the episcopacy only gets away with what it can when no one challenges them or has the structure and power to do so.

    The evisceration of earlier, and still extant, bodies of Catholic solidarity and social action has, like many member based entities, suffered from a lack of renewed membership and post Vatican II (the ecclesiastical version of ‘Anything Goes’ with no shortage of “Fr Reno Sweeneys” in the clergy) seen what were some checks (and more frequently cheque$) and balances on the clergy sadly absent.

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