MARK METHERELL and JOHN WARHURST. Royal Commission provides almanac for what Catholic bishops should do now.

Our group, Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn, was formed back in April 2017 in response to the tide of evidence of child sex abuse that has swept the church.  Our motivating concern was to press for reforms in our church, not only to remove the settings that enabled that abuse but also to shake out the closed, clerical culture.

THE release of the report  of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse provides potent ammunition for change, now.  The scope and depth of the commission report is impressive.  The volume focused on the Catholic Church alone runs to 925 pages, including exhaustive endnotes. This volume ranges across not merely the central issue of responses to sex abuse, but the structure and governance of the church and the contributing factors in the church like clericalism, leadership and  and canon law.

It’s a what-to-do almanac of detail and argument needed to ignite a transformation of the Catholic Church extending well beyond righting the wrongs suffered by victims of child sex abuse.

If the Church is to show it is genuine about embracing changes to remedy the malaise that allowed child sex abuse to go on for so long, it will need to do much more than focus solely on the abuse issue.

A good start would be for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to act on the commission’s ‘Recommendations for the Catholic Church’, particularly with a focus on Recommendation 16.7.

This states: ‘The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should conduct a national review of the governance and management structures of dioceses and parishes, including in relation to issues of transparency, accountability, consultation and the participation of lay men and women. This review should draw from the approaches to governance of Catholic health, community service and education agencies’.

Such a review would be in line with what Concerned Catholics has been calling for since its first public forum last April, given the failure of church leadership has been, in the words of the Royal Commission, “catastrophic”.

This review must be immediate and not delayed until the church’s proposed 2020 Plenary Council, although the review’s conclusions should be taken to that 2020 meeting.

Actions which can be taken forthwith should be put into place immediately. The review itself must not be conducted in-house but should be led by leading lay women and men, have extensive public consultation and involvement, and be conducted with complete transparency.

We believe the ACBC should not be allowed to control the review because they have proved by their actions and inaction that they are part of the problem in church culture and structure. Clericalism and hierarchy models must be closely examined by any review.

Furthermore, any impediments in canon law which stand in the way of a root-and-branch renewal of the Catholic Church in Australia should be swept away.

As it is the commission’s recommendations will provide an interesting test of how seriously the Australian bishops will treat proposals from an august body like the commission, as well as their preparedness to challenge Rome.

The commission’s recommendations for the bishops to consult with the Holy See over possible changes to the seal of the confession and to make public any advice received, and to request that Rome consider introducing voluntary celibacy have drawn most attention.

While any significant changes appear unlikely on these matters, the commission’s urgings nonetheless may prompt the bishops to greater transparency and sharing with laity in their decision-making.

On a variety of other issues the commission recommends the Bishops’ Conference “should request” the Holy See to amend canon law codes relating to child sexual abuse, disciplining of convicted priests and other matters.

The bishops are being called to account by an outside authority in a more open process than we have seen before.

We trust that these circumstances will persuade Australia’s bishops that the practices and culture of the church are in urgent need of renewal.

Emeritus Professor John Warhurst is chairman of Concerned Catholics.  Mark Metherell is media contact for Concerned Catholics.

Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn is a group in the Archdiocese concerned about a number of governance, cultural and structural issues arising from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We seek an effective voice for lay people in the administration and direction of our church.

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John Warhurst AO is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He is a regular columnist with the Canberra Times and Eureka Street.

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