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.