JOHN MENADUE. The Catholic bishops don’t understand their responsibility and accountability. (Repost from 27 February 2017)

In any other walk of life or area of public administration, admission of criminal neglect would be a prelude to the tendering of resignations. The criminally negligent are not fit and proper persons to hold senior administrative responsibilities. Not so in the Catholic Church because it’s all someone else’s responsibility.

It’s very rare that an emperor tells us he has no clothes. But hats off to one that does. That’s almost what the Australian bishops have just done after being driven to their knees by the scale and reach of sex abuse in the Church. It was revealed in their ‘wrap-up’ before the Royal Commission.

Of course these emperors don’t admit that THEY have no clothes. It’s their predecessors who are shown to be naked before the truth. Their predecessors were ‘scandalously inefficient, … hopelessly inadequate … just totally wrong’ They were even found by one of their number with a law degree – Anthony Fisher of Sydney – to have been ‘criminally negligent’.

‘Negligent and criminally so’ indeed! If they were still alive, a former archbishop and two former bishops would certainly face charges and in all likelihood have been sent to gaol.

In any other walk of life or area of public administration, admission of criminal neglect would be a prelude to the tendering of resignations. The criminally negligent are not fit and proper persons to hold senior administrative responsibilities.

Not so in the Catholic Church because it’s all someone else’s responsibility. It’s as if the world Donald Trump is creating in the USA has always been alive and well in the way the Catholic Church runs its affairs.

After the three week Catholic “wrap up” at the Royal Commission into child abuse in institutions, the President of the Australian bishops, Denis Hart made this promise:

As the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference I make this commitment to the survivors of child sexual abuse, the Catholic and broader community: I will do all within my power to ensure the abuse of the past never happens again, that the reforms my fellow bishops and religious leaders have endorsed over the past years will be implemented. I reiterate that the Catholic Church in Australia will continue to support the survivors of child sexual abuse.

The only things missing from this promise and all the other sentiments expressed in his press release is any ownership of responsibility and accountability for creating the destructive mess in the first place or any commitment to addressing the structural causes of the problem in the way the church organizes its life and administration. For example all the bishops were appointed through a rigged system that excludes the people of the Church. Beneficiaries of such a system are hardly likely to want to change it.

Parishes have no say in the appointment and supervision of parish priests.

Some Australian bishops have been held to account for their activities and removed from office. Take the way Rome, urged on by Cardinal Pell and others, dealt summarily with Bishop William Morris over trivialities involved in the administration of the sacraments or mentioning the unmentionable (women priests). It was never made clear what he was sacked for.

When it comes to the big things that matter in life – like really taking responsibility for how bad the governance, culture and exercise of power in the Church is, especially when it comes to protecting the innocent – the Australian bishops have yet to show they get it.

Power and its abuse are at the heart of the problem as Bishop Geoffrey Robinson made very clear over two decades ago. Anything else is just talk. Fellow bishops quickly rejected what Bishop Robinson was saying and shunted him aside. See link to my previous post ‘How the Australian Bishops and Rome ignored the warnings‘.

Protocols, commitments to victims and regulatory bodies will all fail in their purpose if the real cancer eating away at the institution is not diagnosed and treated.

Power, like sex, is a human constant. Power in human affairs can and should never be eliminated. Structuring it with proper checks and balances is the challenge. Its abuse will not be touched and treated as long as no one takes personal responsibility for maladministration.

This allows the causes of the abuse of power (and sex) in the life and fabric of the institution to escape detection and treatment.


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15 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. The Catholic bishops don’t understand their responsibility and accountability. (Repost from 27 February 2017)

  1. Bill Burke says:

    A thought while sitting beside the rivers of Babylon, weeping.

    John, your article and the chorus of replies speak succinctly and sadly of what the Australian Metropolitan Bishops certainly don’t get – at this time. It was impossible to witness their various contributions to the Royal Commission’s wrap up session and not cringe. For even at this late stage of the inquiry, they displayed a continuing preference for performing as prelates rather than finding their feet, however haltingly and belatedly, as Pastors.

    Perhaps, a reminiscence from Mgr John Tracey Ellis offers some solace and a hint of a way forward.

    During the USA academic spring break of 1989, Mgr Ellis, then an octogenarian and doyen of USA Catholic historians accepted an invitation to be an after dinner speaker to several hundred undergraduate students on the final night of a week’s play and partying! He kept the speech short, preferring to respond to questions – which provided the pearl of the evening. He was asked why, in a long career, he had spent so much time writing about a couple of US bishops and had given scant attention to the rest. His reply captured the audience. He said that most of the bishops had done nothing memorable and the most fitting tribute was to allow them to be forgotten.

    Paraphrasing his explanation ,he added: Bishops were an essential component of the Catholic Church’s structure – like spokes in a wheel, they connect the centre to a point on the circumference. But, as a general rule, leadership, inspiration and initiative were seldom associated with their ranks. These qualities (charisms) tended to be recognised in individuals who emerged from the broader church community: men and women who brought to life a glimpse of the Gospel in an ongoing variety of ways with the authenticity of their actions leading to their acclamation as saints.

    He finished with a tribute to a former colleague who did more than most to help the church embrace a notion which previous centuries of popes and bishops had railed against – the right to religious freedom. John Courtney Murray endured censure and isolation under Pius XXII, but remained true to his insights, patiently dissolving Paul VI’s remaining hesitations, thus allowing the promulgation of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Vat II)

    The take home message – the laity have had a say in the selection of bishops and appointment of priests in the past. Re-igniting this participation is not impossible. But it will depend on a lay church who wants this involvement and is prepared to advocate for it. It will also depend on the emergence of scholars who are able to reach into the church’s heritage and expose the red herrings from the top down protagonists.

  2. Bruce Waddell says:

    Having known a few of the unnamed deceased, and not so dead, it is clear the work is not done. Your observations power frequently leads to corruption are spot on, John.

  3. Rev. Leonie Purcival says:

    I am an ordained woman in a protestant denomination, but this abomination still has a significant impact upon my ministry. They will never know the terrible harm they have done to the whole Christian Church, not just Catholicism. Shame.

  4. Dr John CARMODY says:

    I have suggested elsewhere that, perhaps, the only plausible definition of sin is the abuse of power. Yet — for all of their well-rehearsed and implausible denials — Bishops are masters of that “art” but are rarely called to account. Yes, it’s because they’re appointed by a privileged, arcane and powerful elite; they seem not to be subject to any accountability; and (mostly) they remain in office no matter what their serious failings might be. And they are corrupted by “clericalism” and an egregiously exaggerated sense of their importance.

    I once had a confrontation with Archbishop Hart who, in anger, asserted, “I am a loyal servant of the Holy Father”. I pointed out to him that — especially in the light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council — his service and loyalty should be directed downwards to his priests and his people not (except for a careerist) upwards to the Vatican. He simply could not understand.

    Hence, I do not accept that these “Emperors” should be commended for admitting that they have no clothes (an unedifying thought!); they certainly didn’t to it voluntarily or gracefully — they were simply desperate to get out of the Witness Box and seemed willing to say anything to achieve that flight. Those “Big Boy” metropolitan Archbishops made a very poor impression in contrast to a few of their regional colleagues — notably Bishop Vincent Long [Parramatta], Bishop Eugene Hurley [Darwin] and Bishop Christopher Saunders [Broome] — who, whatever the deficiencies of their thinking, perceptions and life experience — radiated sincerity.

    John Menadue is right to identify the inherent scapegoating in the self-exculpation of those senior Archbishops. That was only one indication of their incapacity as leaders: those men couldn’t lead sweating people into an ice-cream shop on a stifling day. As an observer said, “Their career is their charism”. Honour or insight would, surely, impel their resignations.

    There were abundant shocking, dispiriting and depressing episodes in those three weeks of the “Catholic Wrap-up”. But there was some high comedy as well, such as when Counsel Assisting, Gail Furness SC (by the way, how distasteful it must have been for those men to be quizzed by a woman, to whom they needed to be polite), summarised much of the evidence to the effect that (whatever those clerics’ views of celibacy might be) the problem lies in a combination of “Religion, Sex and Power”. To which Hart replied that those things are not discussed at the dinner table. As quick as a flash, she retorted, “It would surely depend on who was sitting around that table, Archbishop”. That was a magnificent moment!

  5. Lynne Newington says:

    Amazing, we’re expected to accept bishops don’t understand their responsability and accountability yet they aren’t impartial to lauding it over their priests, telling us how to live our lives and politicians what to expect if they go against church teaching…..

  6. Moose says:

    Thanks John, Well said.

  7. peter moylan says:

    Keep going John

  8. Jim KABLE says:

    (a) Cut the diplomatic link with Rome. (b) Declare it the Australian Catholic Church. (c) Make all Bishop/Archbishop and Cardinal appointments first vetted by a Federal Government Office of Appointment to which said appointees are answerable. (d) All priests (hitherto known as “Fathers” – but I think it right and proper that an alternative title is used – something as simple and unable to be familiarly confused – as Priest – nothing fancier) to undergo a police check to either take up – but importantly in these times – to be able to continue in their position – a sub-section of the Office of Appointments to oversee this police and probity check. And the same for all Monks and Nuns – the “Brothers” and “Mothers” & “Sisters”! Call them Monk and Nun. (e) Dress them in civilian clothing – Priests and Monks and Nuns – but permit them some identifying sign – a hat perhaps – so that they may still be identified by the community.

    • John Challis says:

      Dear Jim,
      What you are proposing was called “Gallicanism” in France under Louis XIV
      up to the French Revolution, and “Josephism” in Austria under Emperor Joseph 11.; under Bismark in Germany it was the “Kulturkampf”.

      State approved churches, or “established” religions, such as the Church of England in the UK, or Catholicism in Italy (regulated by a Concordat with the Italian State) and Protestantism in the Scandinavian countries, are a recipe for ossification and the silencing of any dissent by ‘troublesome priests’.

      The best solution would be a return to the pre-Constantine model, adopted by the Quakers, where religion is a private matter, with no legal status as an
      organised, lobbying force in society, and each member free to follow their own conscience on moral issues.

      John Challis.

  9. Stuart Magee says:

    One of the bishops conceded that the secrecy of the confessional would still mean that someone confessing to child molestation would be assured that the matter would not be referred to the police. As you say, they still don’t get it.

  10. Joan Seymour says:

    You’re absolutely right. I’m sure Denis Hart was sincere in his commitment to do ‘whatever is in my power’ etc. But he sees his power as being absolutely limited to his own diocese, as indeed do all the Australian bishops. Some of them have tried to speak directly and individually to Rome – you mention Geoff Robinson and Bill Morris – and we can honour them for that. However, the system is such that no individual bishop, except perhaps the Bishop of Rome, can challenge the structure of accountability which sees every bishop as appointed by God and answerable to no-one else. The Australian Bishops have shown themselves willing to co-operate with the Royal Commission, and have made many important changes in their own dioceses. Now let’s see if they have the guts to turn together and face Rome.

    • Lynne Newington says:

      My thoughts are the guts they have before God in the Blessed Sacrament……it’s Rome and only Rome they fear.

  11. Frank Golding says:

    Perhaps some of the responsibility for the parlours situation you so well describe should be held by governments who have allowed the most reprehensible crimes against children to be dealt internally as sins to be confessed, forgiven, and then repeated at the next opportunity. Governments can’t dictate to the church on matters of theology, but they do have strong powers to enforce the law of the land when crimes are committed by clergy. Moreover, where standards have rumbled so low, it is high time the government looked again at the tax-free status of the church and its properties, not to mention the massive transfers of taxpayer dollars to church-run schools and other services that often duplicate state-run services. The Irish government took on the power of the church and reasserted the primacy of civil law over canon law and its various manifestations in clericalism.

  12. Edward Fido says:

    The “problem” with the Catholic Church is that it is a totally autocratic system whose form of governance was taken over from Imperial Rome. After the ancient split between East and West in 1054 there was no counterbalancing weight to Rome as there had been in the undivided Church with the other Ancient Patriarchates. Consequently, the power of the papacy became virtually unchallenged and unchallengeable in the West til the Reformation. Movements like the Cathars were ruthlessly suppressed. Whether the Church is “liberal” or “reactionary” is dependent on the current Pope. How will this change? With great difficulty, I imagine.

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