Clerical privilege took a heavy blow when Catholic bishops were summoned to appear at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to child sexual abuse (RC). The church answering to the state.
The drama climaxed with the appearance of Australia’s five metropolitan archbishops. They were being questioned rather than asking the questions – a dramatic role reversal. They were very chastened. In the words of one archbishop, they looked like rabbits in the headlights. The focus had moved from the abuse to the way bishops had responded. They were reduced to being suppliants before the RC being questioned by a female, secular counsel-assisting. How did they go?
- They described the actions of their predecessors as looking like criminal negligence.
- They decried the clericalism which gave rise to it whilst ironically epitomising clericalism in their appearance and manner.
- They disagreed amongst themselves on the seal of confession showing confusion on their own Canon Law.
- Their instinctive opposition to transparency and accountability was reinforced when the RC published the report of Donnell Ryan QC into the Melbourne Response which the archdiocese had kept under wraps for over a year.
- Their efforts to explain the extraordinary extent of this criminal, immoral and unethical epidemic amongst the Church’s most elite class, the priesthood, were not well thought out or expressed.
- They admitted that celibacy may be a contributing factor but had to defend it because it is still mandatory in today’s Roman church.
- Their defence of enforced celibacy was convoluted church-speak which seemed unintelligible to their listeners.
- They asserted that seminary training had been deficient but was now on the right track without addressing the prior question of whether seminary training, with its celebration of separate clerical status, should exist at all.
Are they now in the clear? Can we start afresh and move on? It’s not so simple.
Three recent events suggest that clerical exceptionalism is alive and well in Rome.
- The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors CPM), set up by Pope Francis, has been constantly obstructed by Vatican agencies and personnel – especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). This has been highlighted by the recent resignation from the CPM of the Irish abuse victim Marie Collins. She cited Vatican obstruction as her reason.
- On the advice of the CPM the pope agreed to establish a special tribunal to adjudicate on bishops who have failed in their management of offending priests. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has obstructed its implementation, remaining true to a clerical defensiveness which has been systemic in the Roman curia for centuries.
- The pope’s intervention to lighten the penalty of some convicted priest offenders has backfired on him. The CDF recommended that they be laicised. The pope overruled them and substituted a penalty lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry. Since then one has offended again. Even the pope, whose first instinct is mercy, must learn that it can lead to the wrong decision in cases of compulsive offending.
In other words the clericalism of the Catholic Church system is undiminished. And Australia’s bishops are born, bred, ordained and consecrated within that system. Are they the ones to turn the system round in Australia? Do they even want to? Are they even capable of doing it?
Most current bishops owe their position to clerical patronage. Four of the seven archbishops are protégés of Cardinal Pell and are aligned with his ideology. One of Sydney’s two new bishops has a background in CDF and the other is a member of the reactionary Opus Dei.
Australia’s bishops will need to change their preoccupation from Rome to the local flock if they want to be successful in turning round an entrenched clerical culture. The most recent episcopal appointee, Timothy Harris, appointed to Townsville, has a pastoral background. Does this show a change of policy?
In any case it may be too little too late. Half a dozen dioceses are still being run by bishops who have put in their resignation due to age. This includes Melbourne – the biggest of them all. The pool of possible replacements has shrunk to a puddle and it seems that many priests are knocking back offers. Irreversibly it is getting harder and harder to get any replacements let alone the right sort. A real dilemma.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest in Melbourne.