FRANK BRENNAN SJ. Woe to the shepherds (Homily, 22.07.18 at St Michaels’ Church, Kaleen)

Jul 24, 2018

Sometimes the lectionary throws up a reading from scripture which just hits you in the face given what’s been going on in your world the previous week.

Here we are for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  That’s as unremarkable a Sunday in the liturgical calendar as you could find.  We’re half way through Ordinary Time for the year.

Every three years, the first reading on this sixteenth Sunday is from Chapter Three of the prophet Jeremiah.  Let’s just listen again to the opening verses:

Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.

Here we are at the end of an horrific week with the Prime Minister having called for the Pope to sack one of our archbishops – Philip Wilson from Adelaide.  His fellow bishops have pleaded with him to resign.  He won’t.  The National Council of Priests have demanded that he resign.  He remains silent.

I can personally attest that Philip Wilson has been one of the good shepherds in recent years when dealing with the plague of child sexual abuse.  As bishop of the Wollongong diocese, he went in and cleaned the place up.  As Archbishop of Adelaide and as president of our Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, he gave real leadership.  But as a young priest in Maitland-Newcastle back in the 1970s, it turns out that he heard things– things which make you feel sick in the stomach and tormented in the head all these years later.

It turns out that Philip Wilson does not remember the things being said to him by a 15 year old boy Peter Creigh – things so graphic that if they were said, you would think that you would surely remember them.  A court has found that Peter Creigh was very credible and very reliable all these years later.  Last November Archbishop Wilson told his people in Adelaide that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.   When asked in court if he would have believed these things if they were said to him, the archbishop said, ‘My practice in – into reality thinking was of the fact that allegations are allegations and have to be tested, to form a belief I – I would normally look for a criminal process at trial to – to take place and to – to reach a determination, or for the – the perpetrator to make an admission of their behaviour.’ This was one of our flustered shepherds being asked if he would believe a child reporting horrific abuse by another priest.

The archbishop is appealing his conviction as is his right.  I actually think the magistrate made some mistakes which should be corrected on appeal.  But there is no way that Philip Wilson with his Alzheimer’s Disease and with his woefully inadequate responses to Peter Creigh’s claims could ever return to being a shepherd, the Archbishop of Adelaide.  So let’s hope and pray that he provides the Holy Father with his resignation, having become unable to fulfil his office for grave cause, or else let’s hope and pray that the Pope dismisses him.

Peter Creigh was not an individual who was out to do damage to the Church or to Archbishop Wilson.  Let me quote you some of the letter he wrote to Bishop Malone in 2010:

‘Over the years I have tried to live with these terrible events pushed to the back of my mind. I have come close on many occasions to step forward and tell my story but I lacked the courage but through prayer and the faith and courage shown by Our Mother Mary, I now step forward. I did not want to shame my parents…, (both) devout Catholics and highly respected in the community. I also have 2 loving aunties who are Sisters in the order of St Joseph’s at Lochinvar and I did not know how they would react or what effect it would have on them.

‘My long silence has come to an end and you might well ask, why now?  I am not coming forward to get on the back of any so called “bandwagon” so to speak as revelations of other cases come to light. I am doing this to help lift the burden I have carried for 40 years and it was not getting any lighter. I broke the news to my family last year which was the first step in the process. The abuse was bad enough to live with but it was the hint of a cover up or lack of action some years later that really hurts. In 1976 I told Fr Phillip Wilson, who had come to our parish as a young priest under Fr John Newton who was Parish Priest at the time, of what had occurred with Fr Fletcher back in 1970. Fr Wilson was someone I had grown to like and trust through his involvement with the youth group in the parish. He said at the time he couldn’t believe Fletcher would do such things but would pass on the information and get it looked into. To this day I do not know if anything was done at the time, who he spoke to (if anyone) or what. Both Fr Newton and Bishop Leo Clarke have passed on but the guilt I have to carry is that if something was done at the time then most of the other crimes committed by Fletcher could have been prevented in the years to follow. This has been a difficult thing to live with over the years as more and more cases were revealed.

‘Bishop Michael, it has been a long time and the whole sad saga has had an enormous affect on my life. …I sit here with tears rolling down my cheeks as this has been the most difficult thing to do. I do not blame the Church as a whole for what took place but I do lay blame on the systems and culture that the Church allowed to be in place at the time that led to such crimes being committed and then being covered up. For us victims of sexual abuse our lives will not be the same again, we have been mentally and in some cases physically scarred for life, that is the sad part. Getting on with our lives is the difficult part.

‘I admire your efforts Bishop Michael in trying to right the wrongs and bring about justice and I sincerely hope your persistence will bring about positive results for all victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.’

Jeremiah promises:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
as king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
‘The LORD our justice.’

Let’s pray for Peter Creigh, for Archbishop Wilson, for all our Australian bishops, for Pope Francis and for ourselves that like the apostles in today’s gospel we might have the opportunity to come away to a lonely place by ourselves and rest for a while and like Jesus, take pity on those demanding justice, truth and healing because they are like sheep without a shepherd.  For indeed, the Lord alone is our shepherd; there is nothing we shall want.  Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives us repose.  From this day forward, surely goodness and kindness will follow us, all the days of our lives as we dwell in the Lord’s own house for ever and ever.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO, CEO, Catholic Social Services Australia



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