JOHN HANNON. Failed leadership and systemic failure

I believe it is time to address the elephant in the room, now that the Royal Commission has presented its findings. Last weekend’s Saturday Age had a dark front-page image of a large cross with claw like hands descending from the horizontal crossbar, an almost sacrilegious image, reflecting the darkness and wrongs perpetrated by some in the name of the Church. At the foot of the cross is a young man, on his knees, hands joined in front of a candle, a striking contrast between the bright light of innocence and the darkness of evil.  

The Royal Commission has made recommendations to various institutions. The ‘confessional” issue is a vexed question, but the fact is that few perpetrators would even think of Confession, and there is a debate within the Church over the issue of a victim revealing abuse, as it is hardly a sin for the victim, though unjustly suffering from guilt, humiliation and shame. The suggestion of voluntary celibacy is not unreasonable, given that it is a long term disciplinary law of the Church related to issues of inheritance Then there is the myth of celibacy being of a higher spiritual state than that of marriage. That is spurious, and perhaps reflective of an unhealthy perspective on sexuality. And is it not common sense that the Royal Commission proposes that “candidates for religious ministry be subject to external psychological testing, including psychosexual assessment”?

There is nothing more precious than the innocence and simple sense of joy in life of children, such that their protection must be always paramount. We have to admit that, as a Church, and as a society, we have fallen far short so often in the past, and been let down by our structures and over-defensive and even blind leadership.

In contrast to many, I believe the media, generally has done an effective job in exposing the wrongs of institutional sexual abuse in our society, rather than scapegoating and seeking to denigrate the Catholic Church in particular, or sensationalizing such serious issues. The fact remains that statistics from the Royal commission indicate that 62% of the complaints by victims were concerned with the Catholic Church, and that fact cannot be ignored or explained away, except to say that it points to a systemic problem of denial and failure to listen to and appreciate the suffering and veracity of victims. And we were the ones, as a Church, who have harped so much on sexual morality.

The film Spotlight, which won an Oscar, wasn’t just a sensationalist film to attack the church, but more a documentary, reflecting the research of an investigative team to expose the darkness and shine a light into the evils of abuse of power, particularly in regard to child sexual abuse and the cover-ups and denial of the leadership of the Catholic Church in Boston, which was a very protectively Catholic place. The culture of cover-up was deeply entrenched, and while there are those who attack the media, believing it is out to get the church, the fact remains the church had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the light to face the reality of the evils of sexual abuse in particular, as has been the case here in Australia.

Almost 3 years ago, when a Parish Priest at Manly in Sydney, I remember being woken early in the morning by text messages from several of my siblings informing me that our parish church St James at Gardenvale in Victoria was on fire with the flames and smoke visible for miles. The fact that over 20 years after the parish priest of 15 years had hit the airport running, apparently with some hint that there have been complaints to the police about his alleged aberrant behaviour, suggested by many to me that, however wrong, this fire could well have been a result and reflection of the depth of anger and pain felt by individuals, as survivors, or friends and families of survivors, of sexual abuse. It was certainly sad and unfortunate .

It was some nine years after this man’s sudden departure from the parish that The Sunday Age published an investigative report, revealing stories from victims of his abuse, at least one of whom later suicided, again reflecting the long term trauma and damage afflicting not just victims, but their families and friends, and that is ongoing and irreversible.

My own mother, as a lifetime faithful Catholic, was pleased to finally see the apology to parishioners of Gardenvale from the Archbishop in 2002, the year before she died, because she was aware of this parish priest’s negative and disdainful attitude to those who did not agree with his extreme conservative proclivities and pastoral malpractice, hiding all the while behind the clerical collar and black dress, let alone the later, much darker revelations.

As a Canon lawyer and Catholic priest of nearly 40 years, I believe the model of Church as a perfect society, with all the means to achieve its ends, is hardly appropriate for the Catholic Church today, or any organization or institution. Whatever the theological and canonical underpinnings, the Pope Francis model of the church as a field hospital, with you and I as walking wounded, among the wonderful diversity all of its members, is far more realistic and meaningful.

The misguided practice of protecting the priest was so wrong, and fear of Rome, whatever Rome means, are hardly reasons for failure to have listened to and responded to wrongs; and so was keeping up appearances, so as not to give the Church a bad name! We’re all paying the price for that now!

At the same time, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is Good News, and being lived out most effectively at the grass roots level of parish, school and community life, in the fields of education, welfare and health. So let’s not lose sight of the positive and powerful influence for good, which the Catholic Church reflects in so many ways.

In all humility and truth, however, it must be acknowledged that we, as Church, in particular its leadership, in the past, have failed to protect the most vulnerable among us, especially our children. Acknowledgement of wrongs perpetrated, apology and compensation are a necessary part of moving on together as People of God who really believe the Gospel of Jesus is very Good News, and who try to live it!

John Hannon is the Catholic Parish Priest at St. Therese’ Parish Essendon. This article is an extract from a homily on the Third Sunday of Advent.


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4 Responses to JOHN HANNON. Failed leadership and systemic failure

  1. J Knight says:

    The Church in the West is definitely operating – extremely poorly – in spite, as much as in part, of the official clerical leadership. One needs to understand that Vat II has long be surpassed by the managerial mindset that now dominates the 4th level of government in Australia (as ‘Constitutionally’ unrecognised as the third, Local Government).

    There is no ‘large’ mission in the Church parish structures or coal face clergy – the decent ones overworked and not complaining, the others just complaining, and the little there is at episcopal level, is focussed on the ‘business’ of meeting government compliance and developing education almost ultra vires of other Church structures.

    Nursing homes are businesses, hospitals are businesses and parishes are also being governed into oblivion.

    Good oversight etc is important, but, being a well rehearsed functionary is not enough.

    Priests need to get back into the business of sanctification, visitation and delegation!
    The pewsitters need to get there more often and in greater numbers and get involved!

    There are many Catholic Organisations dithering for want of committed members prepared to take charge…

  2. Peter Ryan says:

    Fr John Hannon,

    Thank you for this excellent article.

    The successful practice of Rome’s, in practice, suppressing reports of clerical, sexual misbehaviour – and all other forms of unacceptable clerical misbehaviour – lead me to wonder: Has this Church, in its present form, reached its point of no return?

    I am eighty-nine years of age. I lived through Vatican II and studied its documents carefully. I enjoyed the action of the Spirit in the Church in the immediate post
    Vatican II years. I have lived through the rejection of Vatican II’s spirituality.

    I have not lost hope in the guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit, but I have lost hope in the leadership of the Church in those years.

    I believe that wonder is the gateway to God. I suspect that as Christ, true man, died on the cross, he wondered, in part: Was it all worth it? “Father, why have you abandoned me?” has been a prayer in the hearts of many Catholics since Vatican II.

    For more than sixty years I have been convinced that the Church has been corrupt from top to bottom with the abuse of power. I don’t rejoice to now feel that I was right.

    The election of Francis as Bishop of Rome and the fact that he is a Christlike man gives me hope for the future of the Church, but in what form I cannot imagine. Francis’s belief and teaching that each diocese is a Church gives me hope – but not hope for any signs of that return during whatever small time remains in my life.

    Catholics need to believe the Spirit is guiding the Church, even though the only hope one can have for that outcome is to share the hope that Christ, the human, had on the cross.

    Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

  3. Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

    John, your passing dismissal of the ‘confessional issue’, the Royal Commission’s view that the canonical seal of confession should not excuse a priest from the proposed offence of failing to report a paedophile, is disappointing. Unlikely as it may be, would you fail to report a paedophile who left your confessional refusing to report himself to police, knowing the high probability that children continued to be at grave risk of abuse by that man? I would hope that you would accept the dictate of conscience accepting a moral obligation to defy canon law even if the civil law did not require reporting. Every priest should be asking himself these questions and demanding that the Holy See and bishops change the canon law. In any event, the claims by some Church leaders that canon law is sacred and must always override the individual priest’s internal forum, let alone any civil law, are a moral nonsense. Worse, it is the sort of dysfunctional Church governance that resulted in bishops protecting paedophiles without regard to the further sexual abuse of children. The Church should pay very careful and humble attention to all the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission.

  4. Angela Dupuche says:

    I keep hearing that perpetrators of child abuse would not use congressional. I believe it was the fact that they confessed to their bishop or another priest that facilitated the cover up for so long! This was a time when it was believed they wouldn’t reoffend, and I think the Commission knew this.

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