FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Where to from here?

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the extent of the abuse and the appalling rate across male religious orders and within the priesthood.

The posturing and spin of years past has been seen for what is was – an avoidance of the truth and a failed attempt to divert the public from the scale of the abuse and the depths to which Church officials had sunk as they tried to keep it hidden.  

It was only last month that we were confronted with the devastating statistics of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the extent of the abuse and the appalling rate across male religious orders and within the priesthood.

When I started this role I had no real sense of the scope and extent of child abuse within the Church. I thought that maybe the Church had up to 100 paedophiles in its history.

So far, our records indicate that more than 1,200 priests and brothers have had an allegation of abuse made against them.

The figures speak of a moral disease that profoundly infects not only the communities of religious orders and dioceses, but the wider Catholic community.

It is a disease that is ingrained, almost cemented, within the culture of the Church. This fact has not been lost on the Royal Commission.

In its final hearing into the Church the Commission spent three intense weeks examining some of the cultural issues that have contributed to the abuse scandal.

At one point the five senior archbishops sat together in the witness box, attempting to explain the way in which clericalism, celibacy, power, institutional might and other issues played a part in the entire scandalous affair.

My sense is that they toiled in vain.

There is now a deep malaise compounded by a simmering anger within the community about the Church and child sexual abuse.

The posturing and spin of years past has been seen for what is was – an avoidance of the truth and a failed attempt to divert the public from the scale of the abuse and the depths to which Church officials had sunk as they tried to keep it hidden.

Ironically at the very same time that the Australian Church is being rotisseried by the Royal Commission we have the phenomenon of Pope Francis.

Like a godsend Francis appeared on the scene in 2013 – just before our first case study.

So, as the Royal Commission began to unwind the Church edifice on this scandal, the Holy Father likewise began to dismantle the institutional cultural bulwark that has strangled the life out of the modern Church.

The Church is no more in restoration mode, but now is to be unashamedly engaged in the modern world.

It was recently reported that the Pope is starting to go light on some priests who have been found to have abused children.

You have to seriously wonder whether this isn’t the Pope backsliding on what has been a strong and determined crack down on offending priests and the circumstances that allow abuse to take place.

The second very concerning development in Rome over the past couple of weeks has been the resignation of the last remaining, publically identified, abuse survivor from the Pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Marie Collins.

She denounces “the resistance” and “lack of cooperation” with the commission by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and “some” Vatican officials.

She also denounces the “clericalism” she has found in some parts of the Roman Curia, and the “reluctance” of the CDF to implement the Commission’s recommendations – even after Pope Francis had approved them.

Ultimately she reflected on whether the resistance to the commission is in fact resistance to the Pope himself.

Together these two developments paint a picture of the Vatican establishment doing all it can to either undermine the Pope or driving an agenda that is about maintaining the status quo and protecting the institution.

Business as usual.

For my mind the clearest message is this. If people of good will, the good priests, the willing religious, the enlightened leaders, but more importantly people like you – the engaged and informed Catholics – don’t continue to push for change then, as sure as night follows day, the reactionaries will overcome and nothing will change.

If we do not continue to push – and push hard – the impetus for change will fade, inertia will set in, reformists will be shunned, and the victims of what has been the greatest betrayal in the Catholic Church in Australia will remain mired in hopelessness, despair and anger.

This is a very dangerous time for the Catholic Church in Australia.

If the Church in Australia doesn’t see continuous, concerted change from our leaders driven and backed by an active and demanding Catholic Community, then our Church as a religion will become a marginalized rump, stripped of credibility and relevance, left to preach to an ever aging congregation with eyes on an ever dimming here after.

What will it take for this to change? I’d like to suggest just a few things.

One: any church leader who has ever pronounced apologies or actions or sentiments or commitments to putting victims and survivors first must be held to account by the Catholic community, because my observation is that the Royal Commission has viewed many of these statements with scepticism.

Two: we need a stringent policy of putting the right people, with the right skills, in the right places all the time.

In other words we cannot afford the blunders of incompetent administration, advisors and minders and we certainly can’t afford the fumbled attempts to use spin and PR to protect and cotton wool church leaders from facing the consequences of their actions, or in many cases, inactions.

Three: diocesan and church organisations need to open the doors and the windows to genuine participation of the Catholic community in how their money is spent, and in the proper planning to make the church relevant in the daily lives of the people in our community.

Four: church leaders should publically commit to employment ratios for women in senior positions and encourage diversity in their workplaces.

Five: Church leaders must demonstrate a move away from a church of privilege, of comfortable lifestyles far removed from many of the faithful.

As the Pope says we need to become a:

Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.

Six: Church leaders should publically commit now to a public consultation and deliberative process on all issues within the Catholic community that are the source of respectful dissent and even disengagement.

I’m sure many of you have you own ideas that could be added to this list.

And while the leadership of our church and the changes that need to take place must be prominent in all our hearts and minds there are also other considerations.

Most of us in one way or another are all seeking a pathway to meaning.

We are all seeking a sense of being on a genuine spiritual path and I worry that we will become so caught up in seeking structural changes, almost for change in itself, we will lose or shift attention from the deeper more profound journey.

What has shocked and confronted me the most about this sex abuse scandal is that it took place in a church. The very fact that the church was on trial, rips at the heart of what the church is meant to be.

And that speaks to me of a profound loss of direction, integrity, purpose and meaning at the heart of the church. A spiritual wasteland.

We must address this spiritual bankruptcy as much as anything else.

Over the past four years I have spoken to many different groups and organisations about the abuse crisis and the future of the church in Australia.

Their overarching concern points towards the willingness, or otherwise, of the church leadership to instigate change.

The questions asked are always very similar.

Will senior church leaders have the courage to foster a discussion about human sexuality in all its different guises?

Will there be a genuine attempt to reform power and decision making processes?
Will there be serious and sustained innovation in ministry shared by women and married lay folk?

What tangible signs will be offered that demonstrate our church is a place for all regardless of gender, sexual orientation, past histories or family circumstances?

Will our leaders, both overtly and otherwise, reflect the communities they serve rather than expect the deference that divides?

At the very least, answers to some of these questions could be the KPIs of a church that is changing.

Changes must be made, and if they are not made willingly they will most certainly be forced upon us.

Read the full speech here

Francis Sullivan is CEO, Truth, Justice and Healing Council of the Catholic Church. This is an edited version of a speech he gave to Catalyst for Renewal, Villa Maria Parish, Hunters Hill, Sydney, on Friday 10 March 2017.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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