MARGARET O’CONNOR. Reforming the Catholic Church: it’s up to the laity

Jul 24, 2017

The task of reform of the Catholic Church has to fall to the Church’s laity. This work is too important to be led by media figures and personalities with their twitter accounts, large public platforms and endless opinions.

I have vague memories as a child in the early 1970s of seeing ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’, Franco Zeffirelli’s counter-culture-infused biopic of the life of the popular Catholic saint, Francis of Assisi. St Francis, the Patron Saint of Ecology, and Pope Francis’ namesake, preached to the birds and animals (according to folk tales) and committed himself to a simple lifestyle free from greed and material indulgence. And yet, after he passed away, a whopping great big ostentatious basilica was built commemorating his life.

How very Catholic Church. Monumental human flaws and vices interspersed with fragments of a core spiritual heart. In terms of my faith of choice, I wouldn’t blame other people for asking: why?

I’m not entirely sure.

No-one knows more about the Church’s monumental flaws and vices than those most affected by them, as I know all too well having grown up near a town called Mortlake in the Western District of Victoria. The infamous Gerald Ridsdale was parish priest there in 1981 and 1982 when I was 14 and 15 years old. He is now in jail after sexually abusing scores of kids both in Mortlake (mostly younger than me by a few years) and elsewhere in the Ballarat Diocese. His shtick was to present an image of himself as being a big genial friendly bear of a man who loved children. By way of example, at his first Mass at St Colman’s Church, (as I vividly recall after all these years) he warmly invited small children in the congregation to come up and sit around the altar, which they did, excitedly.

Photo Courtesy of the Mortlake and District Historical Society

Ann Ryan, who taught at St Colman’s Primary School for years, outlined her connection to Case Study 28 (Catholic Church Authorities in Ballarat) in her statement to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses in Child Sexual Abuse. She described an intuitive dislike of Ridsdale right from the get-go, learning of his abuses from distraught parents after he left town, and subsequent persistent attempts to try to engage the Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, on the issue. Her statement alludes to a hastily arranged celebration at St Colman’s Parish Hall – tea, coffee, biscuits  ̶ to farewell Ridsdale when he left Mortlake suddenly in around October 1982. When I learned later of what he had done in the town I realised why, in his farewell address to parishioners there, he had, weirdly and obliquely,  inserted a reference to ‘forgiveness’ into the acknowledgements of the ‘support’ ‘love’ and  ‘good fellowship’ characterising his time at Mortlake.

In late 2015 and early 2016, when the Royal Commission hearing was held in Ballarat, Mortlake was thrust improbably into the spotlight during the accompanying media storm. There’s nothing more surreal than spending your early years near a town so small, and making your way into polite society courtesy of the Whitlam era educational reforms, then decades later observing the Australian commentariat, most of whom would have previously struggled to locate the Ballarat Diocese or Western District region on a map, let alone Mortlake, suddenly appoint themselves subject matter experts on events which occurred there in the early 1980s.

But the opinionated reaction on the part of national celebrities and media personalities and their pretenders both in mainstream and social media shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the solid public interest contributions of regional Victorian newspapers with respect to highlighting the facts of Case Study 28. In the 1990s, the Warrnambool Standard covered Ann Ryan’s attempts to engage with the Church after she gave up in desperation and turned to the media. It reported Ridsdale’s initial charges and conviction in 1993 and 1994, his subsequent convictions, and ‘Operation Arcadia’, a police operation which examined the feasibility of charging Bishop Mulkearns for concealing his crimes.

‘Hindsight experts ‘  on twitter, that oh-so-reactive medium (and I’m as prone to this as anyone) could do worse than check out the work of Melissa Cunningham from the Ballarat Courier, who won a Quill Award for stellar coverage of the Commission’s Ballarat hearings. She didn’t make unsubstantiated allegations. She didn’t flaunt her ego or her subjective views. She simply reported on the daily revelations  and allowed the devastating story to speak for itself. Regional media cut backs and brutal efficiencies notwithstanding, it could be possible that reports of the death of public interest journalism have been greatly exaggerated.

But more telling than media reports, even if they undoubtedly serve the public interest, is primary evidence. The story of how Australian institutions comprehensively failed to address allegations of child abuse over a period of decades is writ large in the transcripts of the Royal Commission cases (to which the Catholic Church contributed roughly 70 per cent). Also of interest is how recurring Royal Commission themes compare and contrast with those – half a world away – of the recent Dame Janet Smith review into the culture and practices of the BBC when Jimmy Saville worked there. Organisational and institutional truth is stranger, more pertinent and a lot more devastating than twitter fiction and conjecture. And way more telling than a single narrow emphasis on individuals such as Cardinal Pell.

Many who have experienced or surveyed this truth of institutional corruption and abuse have fled the Catholic Church in abject horror. Some, including myself, reject the institutional Church, but, hanging in there by our fingernails, still call our faith of choice ‘Roman Catholic’. And every day we ask ourselves: why?

It’s time to sidestep the current failings of both mainstream and social media to and turn our thoughts to serious reform. All over the world, groups are springing up agitating for the Catholic Church hierarchy to accept improved governance with a greater involvement on the part of Catholic laity, gay marriage, female priests, married clergy, and much more. Here in Canberra, the group ‘Concerned Catholics Canberra and Goulburn’ is keen to explore how lay people can have an effective role and voice in the administration and direction of their Church. The convener/chair, John Warhurst, would be very happy to discuss the main elements of the approach adopted by Concerned Catholics with anyone from another diocese who thinks that they could be applied to their situation.

We, the global Catholic laity, must take the lead.  It’s the only way forward; this work can’t be led by media figures and personalities with their twitter accounts and large public platforms and endless opinions. Not even by those who are Catholic.

They won’t be able to prevent a recurrence of this devastating life-ruining global tragedy and recover the shattered fragments of our core spiritual heart. That will be up to us.

‘Concerned Catholics Canberra and Goulburn’ can be contacted on: concerned.catholics.cangbn (at)


Margaret O’Connor is based in Canberra. Her interests include music, history and sustainable living. She tweets at: (at)MargaretOConno5


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