It was disappointing to read the latest comments of Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane on the topics of sexual abuse and the culture of the Church. The comments convey a certain confusion, which could imperil any attempts the Church might make to re-establish trust among its members, and between the members and society at large.
On Monday 18th June , the Archbishop gave an interview on a radio program in Italy called The Crux of the matter. Fragments of that interview were published a few days later. The Archbishop is to be congratulated for airing his views on sexual abuse and the church’s culture. However, the reader or listener needs to be wary about some of the offerings from the Archbishop.
Whilst the two issues of sexual abuse and church culture are strongly related, the Archbishop, who says he has been thinking about church culture for 25 years, appears to be confused about the solutions he offers.
Consider one of his comments: “if there had been more lay people involved in decision making roles in the past, we wouldn’t have the catastrophe on our hands that we have now.” This statement requires careful consideration. The Archbishop in effect, is arguing that the sexual abuse by priests was largely due to their ordained status. His argument that lay people would have prevented the abuse, is highly speculative and not very credible.
Currently the Catholic Church in Australia has many decision making bodies called parish councils or leadership teams. Their composition is almost entirely of lay people. That composition alone guarantees nothing. Lay people make mistakes too, and one common mistake is not to question the priest on any matter. In some cases, membership is developed on that basis. We need to remind ourselves as well, that the banking industry in Australia was excoriated recently for a wide range of abusive behaviours – and those responsible were all “lay people”. The point is, that it is not whether one is ordained or not that affects good decision making. It is ultimately a matter of integrity.
In the report of the interview, the Archbishop also expresses a certain mistrust of the Australian legal system. He implies that the judicial process of judge, lawyers, witnesses and jury is somehow focussed on “making heads roll” in the Church. Most Australians would not agree with his view. The open, transparent, and public nature of the Australian legal system needs to contrasted with the secret, protected and covered-up mode of administration practiced in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. We should not confuse the two.
As the Catholic Church tries to find ways to change its culture, it should resist creating solutions until it fully understands the problem. For one who has been thinking and writing about church culture for 25 years, we might have expected a more considered approach from Archbishop Coleridge.
The Australian Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of minors, offered some partial description of the culture of the Catholic church. Three of those descriptors were: power; privilege; and the failure to be genuinely participative. Similar aspects were identified in the toxic cultures of many banks. Power, privilege and self interest are not conferred by ordination, nor are they removed by the status of laity within the church. These descriptors are examples of a living culture that distorts reality on a daily basis.
Archbishop Coleridge acknowledges that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that the power of culture to protect itself is a force to be reckoned with. Until the Church engages with professional expertise within, and especially beyond its own borders, in a serious and sustained attempt to understand the nature and power of its own culture, it is doomed to fail.
Hopefully, no one wants to see that happen—again.
Now retired some 12 years, Garry spent 40 years as an educator, mostly in the Catholic sector. He has facilitated many change processes within the Church. He maintains a strong interest in the future Church.