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.


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.

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

For questions regarding our comment system please click here.
(Please note that we are unable to post comments on your behalf.)

10 Responses to FRANCIS SULLIVAN. Where to from here?

  1. Avatar Patricia Boylan says:

    The church has a practice of placing good men to shield and take the rap for their mistakes.
    ‘The fact is that tens of thousands of children throughout the world have been sexually abused by priests who have mostly been secretly dealt with by ecclesiastical law that provides not real punishment and gives ample opportunity to re-offend.'(Robertson,G).
    It is now time for Australian Bishops to stand up and take responsibility for their management of ‘negligences’ and concealment of criminal activity. Catholic dioceses and religious authorities in Australia provided data to the Royal Commission about the of number cases of clergy abuse. In 2017, Counsel, Gail Furness read out the data in Case Study 50. The sum of child abuse incidents provided by 75 church authorities was 4, 445 children from 1950-2010.
    The following Sunday, the priest from the pulpit in my parish sanitised this data.
    The priest made pronouncements about ‘fake news’.
    The congregation was fearfully silent.
    Why do parishioners remain silent?
    Bishops and their executives have access to the management of significant parish financial resources, access to limitless legal services, access to immense public and political power.
    When a member of the Catholic congregation speaks out about clergy abuse, the retaliation is limitless and unending.
    There is no support for any Catholic to speak out.
    In regional Australia where the church is one of the largest employers, the richest and most powerful entity’s, retaliation is amplified. (I hope this is not repeated twice due to slow internet upload).

  2. Avatar P Toby oConnor says:

    Well summarised Mr Sullivan.

    The fact remains that the Church’s leaders in positions of power have limited understanding of the responsibility they, their predecessors and their culture has played in the institutional silence that has confronted acts that lack any respect for human dignity. Unfortunately, many lay people (those who are the bishops’ “good Catholic men” especially) also have conspired in this cover-over of silence.

    The introduction of some basic good governance and mechanisms that bring about transparent accountability to we the people who are the Church are urgent and easily implementable actions. Having dioceses and in turn parishes produce annual reports on their charitable works, their deeds in general, their HR practices as well as their financial and accounting outcomes would be the beginning of a journey of redemption in the public domain.

    I won’t be holding my breath for action. For too long our leaders have been frozen like proverbial bunnies in the spotlight of public gaze and the shame that only increases as more revelations surface of their lack of action on sexual abuse of children and of women.

    From my experience bishops, generally, are “good pastoral men”. When they become leaders of large corporations they ought to undertake study in the areas of what it means to be a leader of people, a director of a company, how whistleblower legislation and similar mechanism operate for the common good and most importantly what the concept of ‘duty of care’ means towards parishioners and the community.

    Great work by Mr Sullivan in trying to bring a skerrick of dignity to what has been on the whole a most shameful lack of leadership from our Church leaders over many decades. Pity they, past and present, did not listen more intently to findings of research they themselves commissioned in the 1990s.

    The Australian Church could have been the international leaders in addressing these sins.

  3. Avatar Catherine Gorman says:

    Where to from here? A catholic church sliding, very quickly towards demise in countries like Australia. I applaud the words and actions of Francis Sullivan, but it’s too little too late on so many fronts. The systematic abuse of children and the ongoing denials and covers ups in Australia and all the way to the Vatican are quite simply criminal. I was raised catholic, but left the church and all it stands for years ago. I want no part of any organisation that considers me a lesser being because I am female and continues to actively discriminates against our gay community. The medieval power base of old, (allegedly) celibate men in the Vatican telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies would be funny…if it didn’t cause so much harm. I am part of a large extended family who was raised catholic and no one in my 40-something generation identifies as catholic, it simply has no relevance in our lives and the church is regarded as having done far more harm than good. By obstinately refusing protect children or recognise women as equals, the church is the architect of it’s own demise. In and in the next 10-20 years I expect to see more and more parish churches sold and developed, as the current priests and church-going generation die, very few will replace them. The catholic church is undeserving of the position of trust and influence they previously held in Australian life and is on a path to extinction. I wont grieve the loss, the church had their chance to change, to modernise, to practice what they preach…and continues to fail on all fronts.

  4. Francis Sullivan’s compassion, competence, intelligence, courage and persistence has sustained us all through the horror of abuse of the most vulnerable, by a Church whose mission it is to bring Christ’s message of love and justice to the world. Thank you Francis. Our leaders have broken the trust of people of goodwill with unChrist like behaviour.

    I like many, am in grief for the people whose lives have been so damaged and for the generations who have been deprived of the gift of faith and spirituality that has sustained so many of us, and for our world that so desperately needs love and justice.

    I am angry that the Church continues to exclude women and the laity from decision-making on Church teaching and doctrine, such action is integral to the clerical culture that will produce more dysfunction in our Church. Moreover, our bishops’ and archbishops’ performance in the Royal Commission hearings with the exception of a few, like Bishop Vincent Long, gave us no hope that they understood their negligence at so many levels or had the knowledge to lead, to change the clerical culture that contributed to such darkness and evil.

    Francis’ blueprint is good.

    However, unless our bishops, address the clerical culture in a co-equal partnership with renewal groups, the laity and our priests guided by principles of gender equality, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability, there is no hope of reform. Committed women and men who are left in the Church will leave in droves.

  5. Avatar Geoff Upton says:

    A recent edition of the Religion and Ethics program on ABC Radio National offered one explanation to the widespread cover up by the hierarchy being that a number of studies over time in various places indicated that up to 50% of the clergy had been sexually active with another consenting adult. If there is some truth in this then a member of the clergy who had risen in the ranks would likely be hesitant to act decisively against a paedophile colleague for fear of a threat of public exposure of his own breaking of the vow of celibacy. A disturbing scenario.
    Few Bishops or Archbishops in my experience have attended meetings of the faithful and invited questions on their stewardship, their diocese or on current issues and the Church. Incapable of open discussion with the laity or fear of not being able to handle awkward questions openly and honestly? A sad situation for those who look for inspirational leadership and a strong and prayerful community.

  6. Avatar Peter Downie says:

    An inspiring contribution to the discourse, Francis. You are providing the kind of leadership that most of the bishops appear incapable of.
    The church resides in the decent punters in the pews. The seminaries are turning out ignorant and reactionary young priests,some of whom even belong to cults like Opus Dei, but fortunately the punters do not appear to take much notice of them. Still leaves us with the question of how we energise the people in the pews.
    But well done, you; your integrity, courage and dedication are manifest. Peter Downie, Canberra.

  7. Avatar Frank Golding says:

    An honourable man. It must have been terrible to be the voice of the Catholic Church during the Royal Commission and sit in the hearings listening to the evasive posturing of church leaders mealy- mouthing their way through their “evidence”. Good on you Francis Sullivan!

  8. Thanks Francis
    Now we need stick ability
    To hang in and work for not just reform but a revolution in the church
    Service by the Ilgrim people without power and ostantious
    Close the churches and open our homes
    Mike parer

  9. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    A very important public statement by Francis Sullivan, whom I know and respect as a former fellow parent at St Bedes Primary School Red Hill Canberra – an excellent school in every respect, whose teachers helped importantly to shape the good moral values of my three children who attended there in the years 2004-2012. I was so happy – a strange word in the circumstances – to read these wise reflections by Francis Sullivan. I wish that all Australian Catholics and former Catholics could read these words and reflect on their significance. Francis has been labouring in this stony vineyard for years. And thank you, John Menadue, for republishing this.

  10. OK Francis Sullivan knows more than most about this matter and has had to be a front man conduit for so much criminal dysfunction. Corruptio optimi;pessimum. He makes sense in this speech and his blueprint for the future looks good. However the question is are there now any or enough people of initiative, who have not already left the in the church, to do anything about the mess. Most it seems have given away so much power for so long in childlike dependency on the clergy and hierarchy that they will be unable manage or work around the authorities appointed in the last few years by reactionary Vatican officials.
    One serious omission in this and other ecclesiastical matters is spirituality. Most of what was said or taught bout prayer followed the same dependency dynamic as you would expect from a bovine; sheep and shepherd leadership. The spiritual development of the person was about faith, morals and dogma. None of this is necessarily spiritual. Australia sits in Asia which has several rich spiritual traditions of meditation and spiritual development. Learning from these might be a way to reform from the inside out.

Comments are closed.