The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse’s report and its recommendations are essential for the care and protection of children and care of victims and their families. They are also important steps in preventing the perpetuation of the destructive clerical culture that produced the horrifying sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Catholic women make-up the majority of volunteers and ministerial professionals that are the workforce of the Church. Women in religious orders, theologians, ministers, teachers, nurses, doctors, counsellors, administrators, CEO’s, lawyers and accountants, the mothers, sisters, daughters, colleagues and friends of the victims, are the back bone of the Catholic Church and welcome the recommendations and work of the Royal Commission.
The recommendations, to the extent that it is possible, address issues of reparation, healing, compensation, safety, respect and, most importantly, prevention.
But, as other respected commentators, renewal groups and leaders, including Pope Francis have stated, sexual abuse is a symptom of a dysfunctional and destructive culture, so any renewal has to firmly address that clerical culture.
This is a big “but”, because the faithful women and men of the Church who have worked to change this culture over the years have “had enough” of a blinded episcopate, and this cultural change cannot possibly occur unless the bishops and the laity work together.
Much of what the RC Report recommends rests with the bishops who have proved wanting and broken trust. Even now some bishops don’t demonstrate the co-operation, understanding and energy that will be necessary to imagine the root and branch change required to develop completely new ways of bringing Christ’s message of love and justice to the world. Our world has benefited much from Christianity’s input in the past and nowadays it desperately needs its hope to address the overwhelming challenges of inhumane destructive wars, environmental collapse, poverty and international displacement of millions of peoples.
Women’s equality and participation is a crucial structural issue for breaking the clerical culture in the Catholic Church. It is hard to imagine that abuse would have been so enduring if there had been a gender balance at all levels and offices within the Church. Most mothers and fathers would have protected children.
Women and men participating equally in decision-making at every level in the church’s organizational structure is the only way effective governance and principles of accountability, transparency and inclusiveness will occur. There are ways to rectify this imbalance including review of Canon Law, initiatives such as the return to ministry of married priests, introducing optional celibacy, and women in all forms ministry, including deaconate and priesthood would open the doors of our Church to justice and prevent the recent horror occurring again.
So, our plea to women and men of faith who are understandably feed up, is that wherever you are, inside or outside the Church, is to urge you to give the bishops one last chance and join in guiding and supporting them in this root and branch reform that will be so beneficial. Just like Charles Dickens in his novel A Christmas Carol (1843)—set in another time of shocking injustice—urged his characters to give the miserly and unjust Scrooge just one last chance to redeem himself.
There are glimmers of hope to lift flagging spirits. Some bishops have written pastoral letters in response to the Royal Commission Report pledging their commitment and indicating that they have some understanding of what is involved.
The changes that have occurred already through the Royal Commission’s work have put all people in the Kingdom of God on alert and on a steep learning curve.
It is important not to forget that we are all made equal in this kingdom, the laity and priests are church as much as the bishops, it is time for the laity and committed priests to claim that sovereignty and speak out in informed ways for a practice of faith that effectively serves future generations. Listening, dialogue, reframing and shifting the discussion with humility and respect will be crucial.
Archbishop Coleridge has appointed a group to plan and facilitate the Plenary Council of 2020, under the leadership of Lana Turvey-Collins. I spoke with Lana last week and I have to say our interactions gave me hope. She is a clever open-minded person who has an impressive background in cultural change and strategic planning and is an excellent communicator.
While the laity are speaking out and engaging, the Australian bishops will also need to be able to listen and engage in the first instance and be strong and speak up in Rome, although the predictions are that it will be tough for them, Australia could lead this reform internationally there would be many who would support them.
With strong support and planning from the laity, together with the Royal Commission recommendations, they should be well equipped to put the case for change.
They are not without allies in Rome. Archbishop Paul Gallagher knows Australia well, having been our Papal Nuncio until 2014 and he will be sympathetic to the challenge facing the Australian bishops.
Marilyn Hatton is the current coordinator of the Australian Catholic Coalition for Church Renewal, was one of the Australian representatives at the 2016 Chicago meeting of International Reforming Priests and Reform Groups and represents Australia on the international group Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) Executive Committee. She is a founding member of Catholics Speak Out.
Moira Coombs is a member of Catholics Speak Out and of Concerned Catholics.