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.