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.


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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9 Responses to A Plenary of Broken Promises?

  1. Avatar Peter Donnan says:

    What has in fact occurred within the Church, especially over the past 50 years, has been referred to as the ‘creeping clericalisation of the laity’ by Archbishop Porteous in April, 2020. Basically, the laity should not be intruding into ecclesial structures but be out in the world in his view.

    Gail Freyne writes: “The Catholic Church’s criminal and moral failings were exposed by this [RC] investigation.” In fact, Archbishop Porteous conceded before the Royal Commission that “the Church did not understand the seriousness of the damage done to victims, nor the seriousness of issues in the perpetrator. He said that the cultural reasons were difficult to grasp, but that avoiding scandal would have been an issue.” https://www.sydneycatholic.org/pdf/2017/21%20Feb%20-%20Day%2011%20-%20Summary%20for%20CAS.pdf

    This is an example of higher, ecclesiastical thinking by one who is now a senior bishop: how much credibility do such bishops have and at what ecclesiastical echelon were they during the dark era of sexual abuse of children? An era of seeping erosion of episcopal moral authority.

  2. Avatar J.Donegan says:

    How many bishops does it take to change a light bulb? Ahhh. Well, with all the various committees, convocations, conferences and confabs required, it could take a fair while. On the other hand, it could be done by one of their number sufficiently switched-on to realize that a ladder is necessary to provide a better view and brave enough to step up and start the job.

  3. Avatar Gerry Leahy says:

    Thank you Gail for your clear and compelling summary of the clerical arrogance that besets the ‘people of God ‘.

  4. Avatar Trish Martin says:

    Obviously the Catholic bishops do not feel compelled to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission. It seems they don’t give a hoot about the status of women and even less about the role of the laity in deciding how to celebrate Mass and liturgy, but the average Catholic is much wiser now following the revelations of the Royal Commission. We were brainwashed by our Catholic education that priests were ontological beings, so we trusted them, we believed the dogmas and doctrines without question and all the while they turned a blind eye to those who abused and raped thousands of vulnerable children. Now we know they are no more sacred than the average man who is in a position of power. How can we ever trust the bishops to put Christ and his teachings at the centre of their Institution rather than their own self made ideals status and image?

  5. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    Gail, I’d think that most Catholics would join you in issuing that challenge to all our bishops:
    “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.”
    Regrettably, our bishops have a poor record in listening to their people, in heeding the sense of faith of the faithful that has been made clear in the submissions to the Plenary Council. Most Australian bishops fail to observe even the guidance of canon law that they should establish diocesan pastoral councils and hold diocesan synods/assemblies.

  6. As I said to the ACBC right at the beginning of the Plenary Council process –
    “Faith without good works is dead.

    As Eliza Doolittle said, about two men in particular,

    I’m so sick of words,
    I get words all day through,
    First from him, now then from you,
    Is that all you blighters can do.

    But she could just as well have been echoing the thoughts of the Catholic laity as we confront our (men-only) bishops,

    Don’t talk of love
    Lasting through time,
    Make me no undying vow;
    Show me now.

    It’s showtime, guys. You’ve said all the appropriate words – appalling, shameful, embarrassing, sorry, sorry, sorry and the like – over and over again. (Though I haven’t yet heard “I confess”.) Now is the time for some action. Show us.

    Sing us no song,
    Read us no rhyme,
    Don’t waste our time,
    Show us.

    If your words are to mean anything at all, if you are really sincere in seeking change, then they must translate into action. Now. You’ve talked about the problem often enough and long enough, what are you going to do about it? Now.

    You have put in place, often it seems belatedly and reluctantly, measures to protect children and other vulnerable people. Great. But what measures are in place to show accountability for and to fix institutional cover-ups? Are those responsible to get off scot-free? If a dysfunctional institutional culture is to blame, what is being done to fix it? So “clericalism” is the problem? As Pope Francis believes. How are you moving to a solution of the problem? Not just discussing all of this, but actually doing something about it all.

    Show us, and we might start to believe you. We might even begin to hope that the forthcoming Plenary Council will be more than just a glorified, and very expensive, talkfest. Predominantly by those who have already failed us.”

    Thank you, Dr Freyne, for saying essentially the same thing – though much more eloquently.

  7. Avatar Kieran Tapsell says:

    Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin explained “mental reservation” to the Murphy Commission in Ireland, as deceiving someone without telling a lie: “….there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be.” Another way to achieve the same effect: set up an independent body to monitor compliance with recommendations of the Royal Commission, cover it with praise, and then quietly abolish it. Jason Berry’s accusation that the Church was plagued by “institutionalised lying” still seems valid.

  8. Avatar Steve Jordan says:

    why don’t you respond directly to the RC addressing their recommendations as the criteria for the position and providing your CV, outlining your credentials to be the leader of the Church in Oz? You could c.c. that material to the Pope, of course.
    (You are probably aware of the female theologian who applied directly to the Pope recently to be the bishop of one of the French dioceses).
    In the best Oz traditions, you might enquire with the bookies in the NT as to the odds of your seeing much change in your lifetime. Do put some money on that; the grandkids might be very grateful for the payout on your wager!!

  9. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Where is the love of Jesus in all of this? The central character of the church has definitely gone missing.

    It appears that the church is now merely a business.

    Start by cutting off the exemptions from taxes – rates. Then continue by taking control of land and buildings and auctioning them off to recover costs. Of course begin with thge major cathedrals in each capital city – excellent art gallery/museum possibilities.

    Then move on to other church properties in the suburbs or places carrying most value – in order to pay proper comnpensation to all those who have suffered at the hands of paedophile priests and priest-protectors.

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