ERIC HODGENS. The Catholic Dilemma.

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.


Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest living in retirement. He writes for P&I, International Lo Croix and The Swag.

This entry was posted in Religion and Faith and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

For questions regarding our comment system please click here to email P&I support.

10 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. The Catholic Dilemma.

  1. Avatar Di lopez says:

    I agree with all the above. The Church is a lost cause and I was appalled when Archbishop of Sydney referred to the criminal activity of offending priests as “misbehavior”

    I agree with the quality of priests. Remember the description of a coterie of priests always accompanying Cardinal Pell as the “Spice sisters”. Says it all.

    Until parishiners en masse walk away and refuse financial contributions nothing will help. We should organize demonstrations in every capital city.

    What worries me is if the church does not purge the priesthood of sick men, the west will be vigilant in stopping their criminal activity. But what about the poor countries.. Asia, Africa, south America.. I fear they will become the target.

    I hope Catholics refuse to donate to Peters Pence.

    When I ask Catholics how they can bear to attend Mass, the replies are the same. “Our church is not part of the evil” Oh yes it is. Have you asked your priest about the gossip and stories that were common for years. What did he do ?

    Good luck to all of you. I would be very happy to join in a demonstration to demand a clean church and properly compensate victims of priests crimes

  2. “The archbishops ought not be writing merely a “nice letter” to Pope Francis explaining the findings of the Royal Commission but urging an urgent delegation to Pope Francis’s door of ALL the Australian bishops to stress the urgency of the institutional crisis facing the Church Downunder.” Brian Coyne writes. Why wait for the bishops whom the article describes as not up to the job? Or why select a group appointed as described for their conservatism and duplicity to represent Australian Catholics?
    Meanwhile there is currently so much dumping blame at the feet of clerics while avoiding to implicate many of the laity who colluded in the criminal silence. Some were teachers, some cops, some parents of children at catholic institutions, lawyers etc and peers of the children themselves. They will never appear before a commission. In a different age and culture many of these “Good Catholics” were still running their adult lives on the green catechism , the Catholic Weekly and the dictates of the Knights of the Southern Cross; they never learned an adult theology or philosophy. Many, if not most, were insuring their investment in the next life and if they started to question they would be likely to undo the fire insurance they were paying off for the next life. It is taking ordinary Catholics a long time to take back the power they have given away after finding it was not a satisfactory bargain. Surely if the people who bother are serious rather than pleading with the hierarchy, they describe as unsatisfactory, they could take a delegation of men and women to see the Pope tomorrow.

    • Avatar Lynne Newington says:

      It’s a good thing to mention the lawyers Michael. One minute they’re blamed for giving the wrong advice another taking instruction from their “clients”.
      I can recall a case where Legal Aid funding was refused the unless the client accepted a round table conference withdrawing legal action altogether.
      When they refused and prepared to go it alone, the top Catholic lawyer they were counting on handling the matter, took on the case pro bono to protect the church keeping everything under wraps.
      Then he had the gaul to write to the local bishop explaining how he got involved and referring to the client as “a hot potato”.
      Then adding insult to injury, in winning the case, they had to pay their own legal fees as costs weren’t pursued probably because a precedent had been set and the case would be in law books and periodicals.

  3. Avatar Judy Doherty says:

    Dear Father Hodgens.

    Thank you for being interested in hearing a reply …here goes.

    My husband , Tim, worked in the Criminal Court of Australia as a senior barrister for 20 years. Over his long and arduous time , the Catholic Clergy rated extremely minimally compared to the appalling abuse of children at large by other ( nearly ALWAYS ) married men. These men had full consenting females at their disposal but their sexual preference was for children. Surely that fact questions the difference celibacy makes in our discussion? The culprits came from many walks of life and on the whole were cunning, manipulative and uncaring

    Father nowhere do you mention God’s love for man and His longing to help us. Without Him we can do nothing. He has promised us that the gates of hell will never prevail against us and they never will. The Catholic Church was born in failure, nothing could have been much worse than the Crucifixion and yet despite all the horrors we have survived and always will. God’s abundant grace can not be measured with any kind of a human yardstick surely. His Divine Presence in every tabernacle on earth is mind boggling. In the early days of Australia the Faith flourished despite there being very few priests indeed . Let me assure you we will rise again dear Father, goodness will prevail.

    Thanks for reading this, God bless you always.

    Judy Doherty (Mrs.)

  4. Avatar Brian Coyne says:

    One of the genius acts of the Catholic Church historically was the magnificent two-tired education system it established. One of the first institutions to bring education to the mass of the population. A huge side-benefit of this is that it provided a structure where it was able to identify the “best and brightest” in society, no matter what their family circumstances. Via a system of bursaries and fee arrangements it was able to steer these eventually into their top-tier schools, into the institution’s seminaries and eventually into the senior leadership positions in the institution.
    Eric Hodgens has become something of a herald pointing out the massive drying up of vocations over recent decades and the crisis this is delivering in the future viability of the huge parish structure the Church had established.
    Less commented on than the drying up of vocations has been the flow-on effect at the senior leadership and managements levels of the institution today. The well is running dry not only at the level of finding leaders for local parish communities but in finding “talent” to lead the Church at its highest levels. Increasingly, at the lowest levels, instead of recruiting from the “best and brightest” in society, the Church seems at times to being forced to recruit from the “social misfits”.
    Under the last two popes the situation seemed to be that at the higher levels of the institution the “best and brightest” were actively kicked out or not promoted. Others saw the writing on the wall and left voluntarily once they realised what was happening.
    The Catholic Church in Australia today is facing a crisis in morale. Around 90% of the adult faithful have ceased participating and listening. Following the Royal Commission and when the next official participation rate is released many who seriously think about these things believe the participation rate will be under 10% of the adult baptised.
    The archbishops ought not be writing merely a “nice letter” to Pope Francis explaining the findings of the Royal Commission but urging an urgent delegation to Pope Francis’s door of ALL the Australian bishops to stress the urgency of the institutional crisis facing the Church Downunder.

    • Avatar Russell Davis says:

      Nicely said, Brian. I, too, have thought about the flow-on effect as you call it, on senior leadership, and have wondered about how difficult it is going to become to fill some of those types of roles, given the passivity of todays’s Catholic population. I like your delegation idea.

  5. Avatar Brian F Kennedy says:

    Thankyou Eric – again. At the end of the day, change comes from a “Crisis” and we have still to go some way to that. Think of “Climate Change”? Is it a “belief system” or a scientific reality. Some people whose name I won’t mention think it is “”. But a crisis will bring about change in a hurry. Records of higher temperatures and carbon emissions are growing – scientifically. With the Church, one has only to read many former articles in the John Menadue Pearls and Irritations to know that? But what action is is going to take place arising from the Crisis. Keep watching future editions on Pearls and Irritations after the RC finishes its final Report. Like Boston, it will be the Press and reports of the Commission.

    • Avatar Lynne Newington says:

      But as far as the church as instition it will soon be past into history.
      Mark Coleridge once stated they’ve lived through worse……and he would know what worse was, more than we would…….

      • Avatar Lynne Newington says:

        Just to clarify my …” as far as the church as an instituion will soon pass into history”, I meant as far as the recent Crisis..
        Mark Coleridge made no mistake in his comment the problem of sex-abuse is very grave, but the church has survived worse and it would BrokenRites that would go down the gurgler…..

  6. Avatar Lynne Newington says:

    No one seriously believes clerical privilidge in toto took a serious hammer do they?
    Not when our allegiance is to Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia……..and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwelath:
    Terms of Reference
    Letters Patent
    To The Honourable Justice Peter David McClennan AM and Co.
    Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sseual Abuse.

Comments are closed.