PATTY FAWKNER. Calls for change within the Church will be its salvation.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Post have something important to say about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of the Church’s mission. 

Two recent award-winning films had something to say to me about the Australian Catholic Church in the wake of the Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The first was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a dramatic black comedy about Mildred Hayes, a woman who rents three billboards to draw attention to her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder.  Mildred receives a pastoral visit from her parish priest who is sympathetic to Mildred’s loss but critical of her justice-seeking methods. He reminds her that she’d have more community sympathy for her cause if she hadn’t stopped attending church.  Mildred turns on the priest and in a tirade accuses him of complicity in sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The scene is powerful and gripping. However, it was the response of the packed theatre that I found most sobering.

Some in the audience didn’t hold back with their comments, murmurings and sneers. The disdain for the Catholic Church was palpable. A friend who saw the movie elsewhere said that he experienced a similar audience response.

The second movie was The Post, a political thriller depicting the true story of The Washington Post’s attempt to publish secret classified documents, the Pentagon Papers, regarding US involvement in the Vietnam War. These documents revealed unreported facts about the escalation of troops and serious setbacks to the US offensive.  The key motivation for concealing this information by four consecutive administrations was that the United States could not be seen to have failed. In the face of this hubris and misinformation, more troops were marshalled and more young American lives were lost. The film follows the Government’s litigation and heavy-handed attempts to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a concluding dramatic scene, the ruling from the Supreme Court is handed down: The Washington Post is vindicated because “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors”.

Both films have something important to say about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of the Church’s mission. The Church’s mission is to serve the people of God, not any clerical “commander-in-chief”. It is a church of the baptised not the ordained. It is a church whose focus of care should be those most in need in society. And a church whose priests should be, in Pope Francis’ memorable image, “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”.

Just as the US continued to send young soldiers to the Vietnam War in a vain attempt to bolster its international dominance, the Church’s concern for the reputation of the institution trumped the care and safety of innocent children.

Irish theologian Dr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, in his evidence to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, stated that “It was as if the Church, wishing to be seen as that beacon of holiness… could not quite face up to the grievous failure” (p. 632). It was as though those in positions of power – all of whom were ordained clerics – could not see the abused children; nor could they, or would they, listen to them. They failed to understand the depth of the pain and the extent of the tragedy of child sexual abuse.

How different from Jesus’ response: “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). Let the little children be seen; let them be heard and let them be believed. Above all, let them be healed and let them be safe.

The Royal Commission Report notes that there were multiple individual and systemic failures that contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but, quoting from a leading expert, Rev Dr Thomas Doyle OP, “If one had to isolate one single factor that has contributed to the toxic response of Catholic Church leaders to victims of sexual abuse it would be clericalism” (p. 613). The Report defines clericalism as “the idealisation of the Catholic priesthood and, by extension, the idealisation of the Institutional Catholic Church” (p. 613).

Many commentators have said that it just can’t be “business as usual” within the Australian Catholic Church, which is now so distrusted and diminished. Popular culture, as evidenced in the films Three Billboards and The Post, is offering a necessary and timely critique.

It occurred to me that the audience’s response to Three Billboards is positive. It rejects an arrogant, hypocritical, entitled institution. I hear a hidden call for a more humble and transparent institution; a less powerful Church without the status it once demanded and enjoyed. A more wounded Church may have a more compelling message for the very people it is called to serve. The first and ongoing priority of the Church must be the care for the victims and survivors of its own abuse.

Mildred Hayes believes her pastor was complicit in child sexual abuse, merely by being a member of the “clerical club”. But aren’t we all personally complicit when we collude with any system – that of the Church and other organisations to which we belong – which puts some on pedestals? (I include myself as a religious sister and congregational leader.) Where not only children, but also women, are invisible in structures, decision-making, language and ritual? And where a sense of entitlement occurs because of the position one holds?

A culture of clericalism not only damages children, it damages everyone within the system. While not exploring the contentious issue of celibacy here, I concur with the Royal Commission’s finding that certain stressors in the lives of the perpetrators of abuse have had a role to play – stressors such as social isolation, lack of positive adult relationships and low self-esteem (p. 592).

We get a volatile brew when this is mixed with a seminary formation, described as “tridentine” by Rev Dr David Ranson, Vicar General for the Broken Bay Diocese, which promotes “theological literacy but not sexual or emotional literacy” (p. 610) and the curious belief that an ordained minister is somehow “ontologically” different from those to whom he ministers. The ministered to, and the ministers, deserve better.

A holistic initial and ongoing formation program needs to embrace an incarnational theology and spirituality where there is no false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the human. The starting point for any theology is human experience – the actual flesh, blood, sweat and tears of human experience – that of those ministered to and those doing the ministering.

My experience is that many of the laity want to support their priests and want to work with them, not necessarily for them. Lay women and men want to contribute their skills and nurture a culture of mutuality for the sake of the Church’s mission – which is Jesus’ mission.

The calls for change within the Church are currently loud and strident. They will, I believe, be the salvation of the Church, only if we have but ears to hear and a humbled contrite heart committed to respond.

Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. In September 2017, Patty was elected as Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at their 26th Chapter Gathering.

First published in Good Oil, February 2018.



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Patricia Boylan

Almost five years ago, Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote, ‘The Pope is the source of Canon law, which directs that allegations of child molestation be investigated in utter secrecy, by a “trial” loaded in favour of clerics who if found guilty are “punished” for the most part by orders for prayer and penitence. This must be changed, by recognising that child molestation is a serious offence that cannot be dealt with in a secret ecclesiastical procedure. Allegations must be reported to the police. The Vatican pretends that it made this change in 2011 when new “guidelines”‘ were issued reminding… Read more »

Patricia Boylan

David Marr’s essay in the Guardian, ‘Grappling with Rome: lessons from the royal commission’ is worth reading alongside Patty Fawkner’s, ‘Call for change within the Church.’ Marr notes that Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge cited lots of talks but no “structured discussions”. As David Marr writes Commissioner Peter McClellan, debated the issue for hours with canon lawyers. ‘Leo XIII seemed to say something quite promising but in the end, they couldn’t turn up a clear direction from the church to report priestly abusers to the state. McClellan thought the discussion extraordinary. How can church law be so opaque? “Maybe I’m just… Read more »

Kieran Tapsell is right of course, the Vatican and archbishops are doing classic political PR. Actions tell the truth, not words. – The Jesuit Provincial will not ACTIVELY seek out people his organisation has harmed. ( he was directly asked to by a friend of mine). – The Catholic Archdiocese and the Society of Jesus STILL are as nasty as possible in court, they do not and will not behave as a “model litigant”, destroying the plaintiff is still the thrust. ( a suit was recently settled after years when the plaintiff’s lawyers ran out of money, SUCCESS!). – Signing… Read more »

Steve Sinn

A great summary of the issues Patty. I too squirmed when I heard the gasps and jeering at the priest in Three Billboards. One question I would ask is: who is the article addressed to or is it a cry in the wilderness? So also Peter’s response: who are you speaking to Peter? Where is the national leadership in the Catholic Church to undertake such a review? The Bishop’s Conference? It sometimes feels that we are toothless and “other people” are running the show. One starting point for discussion is the decision to import priests from cultures different from our… Read more »

Joan Seymour

Maybe the call to us is to stop saying that ‘they should do summat’. Stop trying to convince the clergy to do this or that. Start doing things for ourselves. Start organizing blessing services for gay Catholics who want their faith expressed in their weddings. Don’t ask Father, knowing he really can’t. Just do it. (Only one example, and it’s not for everyone – but that feeling of powerlessness can only be defeated by the legitimate exercise of what power we have).

Thank you Sr Patty for your honest article. In response to … “A more wounded Church may have a more compelling message for the very people it is called to serve” … I’m left to ponder … how does an impregnable, wealthy, all-knowing, self-righteous Church institution become wounded, if at all? What are public signs that would recognise this ‘humbling’? What are public responses that would acknowledge it? …

Kieran Tapsell

Pope Francis says some lovely things when he wants to encourage other people to do something about refugees, poverty, inequality and climate change. He also says lovely things when he wants other people to do something about clericalism in the Church (“shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”), but when it comes to his own power to change many of these things with the stroke of his pen, he doesn’t do anything, or worse, refuses when asked. In 2014, he was asked by two United Committees to get rid of the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse and to… Read more »

J Knight

Well, he may have been mindful of the bishop being the fullness of Orders? The priest and deacon are the agents/extension of the local bishop in the clerical state. I seriously doubt it occurred, but, the consecrating bishop (and the bishop elect?) should be wearing dalmatics during the ceremony to visually remind people of this. But, the suggestion of this is only adding fuel to the fire I suppose. As to the movies cited, no doubt the priest bashing was an essential part of the director’s intent. It doesn’t diminish the current author’s argument, with which I concur, but, at… Read more »

Peter Johnstone

All important observations, Patty. Clericalism will however continue until Church leaders learn to be accountable, inclusive and transparent, and that won’t happen until women are appointed equally to top Church decision making positions and the selection of bishops is properly informed by the people they are supposed to lead. The defensive reaction to the recent exposure of the Church’s wealth in Australia again showed clericalism rampant. Church leaders are saying in essence, “We have a large wealthy organisation doing good works – trust us!” Those leaders have lost their claim to trust. It has been through misplaced trust in leaders… Read more »

J Knight

The layman/women panacea is of some concern too, given I think 43% of the reported abuse in the Catholic Church involved lay people? I suppose it depends on the definition of lay and the gender too, but, that’s what was reported…

Joan Seymour

Actually, the proportion of laypersons involved is much, much higher. Nearly all the victims were baptized, lay members of the Church. Unfortunately for them, they were very young members, and unprotected. And nearly all those who resiled from their duty to those vulnerable members of the flock were clerics.

Jennifer Anne Herrick

Patty Faulkner’s insights re clericalism pierce to the heart of the Catholic Hierarchy problems. Which is why it was so telling and so unfortunate that Archbishop Anthony Fisher, in his address in Woolongong, to the incoming about to be ordained Bishop Brian Mascord – that all bishops are first men, then christians and finally clerics! Anyone who knows Brian knows one couldn’t find anyone less clerical, which makes the choice of him for Bishop so refreshing. Why did Anthony Fisher choose the word cleric instead of priest?