A Plenary of Broken Promises?

When the people in the pews get so restless that evidence of deceptive dealing at the top of the Catholic Church in Australia starts falling off the back of trucks these same leaders should know that they have a calamity looming on their collective horizon.

It is not only the Catholic faithful who are being manipulated. The federal government, and therefore all the people of Australia, are being duped. A lot of time and money was expended by taxpayers to fund the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Catholic Church’s criminal and moral failings were exposed by this investigation and the barque, already foundering, began to take on serious water as the people departed, with their wallets, by the hundreds of thousands.

Finally realising that a public relations effort must be launched to staunch the flow, the Australian Catholics Bishops Conference (ACBC) initiated a series of initiatives. Perhaps the most important, launched after discussions with the Royal Commission, was the formation in early 2017 of the Catholic Professional Standards Ltd (CPSL), a new and independent body tasked to set standards within the Church for child safety, and then to audit and report on compliance with these standards by the bishops and religious leaders. Finally, the reports were to be made public, ensuring that a new benchmark of accountability was set for church leaders. Subsequently, the Church’s official response to the Royal Commission mentions the CPSL on 164 occasions and notes that the company is responsible for the implementation of 60 actions which address recommendations of the Royal Commission. Clearly, CPSL was a key player in project ‘Resurrection’.

If this project was to have any meaning beyond lip-service, the first essential was for CPSL to have functional independence. Words are important but commitment is judged by actions. But if news comes from the back of a truck comes the news that CPSL – heralded as the standard bearer of church reform – is to cease operating by 31st December, who will take over the independent auditing of sexual abuse in the Catholic church is no more?

Some of the work done by CPSL is expected to be done ‘in-house’- whatever that means – but with a strangulation level of financing and with no accountability to the faithful or the state. This is the ACBC demonstrating that it has learned nothing, returning to the mediaeval model of governance with clericalism rampant. The suggestion that the Church can police itself is, on all the available evidence, stupefying. This is more deceptive dealing and back to “business as usual”.

A second effort at public relations was launched in May, 2018 and called the Implementation Advisory Group (IAG). The word ‘advisory’ was a bit of a red flag but taken on its merits it was to be one of three groups “to take forward the work arising from the Royal Commission”. The other two groups were CPSL – started then stopped, and the National Redress Reference Group, a device created by the ACBC to move the responsibility for just redress from the Church as a single entity onto the individual dioceses and religious congregations within the Church.

One task given to the IAG was of extreme importance: to respond to Recommendation 16.7of the Royal Commission, designed to remedy the flawed structures and methods of governance that is had found responsible for the tragic institutional responses to child sexual abuse. A Governance Review Project Team (GRPT) was set up and they expeditiously produced a report entitled, ‘The Light from the Southern Cross: Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia’. The 86 recommendations in the 200 page report almost all mirror the general consensus of views expressed in the 17,500 written submissions of ordinary Catholics during the Plenary Council’s first preparatory phase.

Though the GRPT requested that the report be immediately published the ACBC decided that, because they had commissioned the report, it belonged to them alone, and would not be making it public until after their next meeting in November, 2020. Date unspecified. Their reasons for pocketing the report were that they needed “to take advice, consider the report in depth, conduct discussions” etc. With whom was also not specified. But it certainly wasn’t with the people of God, who justifiably felt they could have simultaneously been considering and discussing their report. After all, this report is to form a substantial part of the agenda for the Plenary Council.

Fortunately, another pew dweller got restless and the report fell off the back of a truck. The immediate result of what became an embarrassing world-wide leak resulted in the ACBC, “in the interests of transparency”, re-arranging the publication schedule for “late July, early August”. We now know that many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission were adopted by the GRPT, but what will become of them is anyone’s guess. On one recommendation, that women should play a decisive role in the selection, formation and training of candidates for the priesthood and deciding their suitability for ordination, the ACBC is unlikely to be accommodating.

Women, that other half of the Church, remain a troublesome collection of souls for our leaders. Following upon a study twenty years ago that reported women felt widespread alienation in the Church, the ACBC established the stand-alone Council for Australian Catholic Women and the Office for the Participation of Women. These bodies were tasked to “find ways within the integral Church Tradition to engage the wisdom, talents and the experience of women for the enrichment of the Church and society, and for the fulfillment of their own lives.” (ACBC response to Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus, 2000). Last November, a follow-up study, commissioned to assess what progress had been made, reported in ’Still Listening to the Spirit: Woman and Man Twenty Years On’ with startling consequences: Contrary to the advice of two of its leading members, Archbishop Prowse and Bishop Long, that “There is unfinished business from the action commitments made by the bishops in 2000” , the ACBC decided to dismantle both the advisory offices!

Women are still listening to the Spirit. But what voice does the ACBC hear? If it is a banker telling them they are in the red, that excuse won’t fly. There were 2.8 million Catholic women in Australia and in 2016 and in 2019 just 247 men studying for the diocesan priesthood. Yet there is no talk of closing the 8 seminaries when one would clearly suffice. Women have been deceived again by two decades of fine words and broken promises.

In the context of all this deception, we move towards a Plenary Council, an idea first put to the ACBC by Catholics for Renewal in 2012. They suggested that the bishops should hold a plenary council in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II. What was “not opportune” at that time has become urgent post the Royal Commission’s damning report.

If the abolition of the CPSL means no accountability in matters of the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable persons, the withholding of a report that called for transparency in governance amounts to a refusal of transparency in governance. The concept of inclusion was laid to rest with the disbanding of the two offices concerned with women in the church.

It was all a chimera. Putting the spotlight, à la Boston Globe, on all the platitudes, broken promises and half truths that provide the context for this entire plenary process will bring to light not a new beginning but rather a blanket refusal to reform anything, to cede not an iota of power or control. After all the commitments to the government and promises of renewal to the faithful, we, both church and state, are all left with nothing more than “business as usual”.

But hold!

There must surely be many bishops and heads of religious orders who know that this is morally wrong. Where are they? We cannot reform the Church without them. We need them, to have the courage of their convictions. Without them, the upcoming Plenary Council, heralded as a new beginning by the Catholic Bishops of Australia, is daily looking more like a sleight of several amethyst bearing hands.

Gail Grossman Freyne, LL.B., Ph.D., Family Therapist, Mediator and Author.

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Gail Grossman Freyne is a family therapist, mediator and author. Her most recent book is The Curious Case of Inequality: A Journey for Justice with Dorothy L. Sayers.

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