Michael Kelly SJ. On being a Priest.

Oct 16, 2014

I’ve been a priest for thirty years and for perhaps the past two decades, I have known that when I walk into an unfamiliar setting or join a new group of people and tell them what I am, a goodly number are thinking to themselves: “What sort of a weird, psychologically deficient, sexually repressed and potential criminal do we have here?”

Part of me enjoys the dare that such subconscious assessments offer. I am none of those. I’ve made some choices in life and had to live with their blessings and burdens.

Right now such assessments are predictable enough if people making them haven’t met many priests. But I also know that I’m guilty as charged in many ways.

It’s very difficult being a priest in the Roman Catholic Church in Australia. There is such a long record of incompetent mismanagement of sexual abuse claims against priests; so much practical denial of the pain people go through and such distance from anything the founder of Christianity actually sought to foster.

I share a culture with people like Cardinal George Pell who has told two enquiries that the Church’s processes lacked both the vocabulary and systems for dealing with such psychopathological behavior. Where I part company with Cardinal Pell in his excusing his inaction in Melbourne before he became archbishop.

Fact is, we both knew what was being said around the clergy about a number of individuals.

Just days ago I found reference in the media to the death of a priest I’d known for a decade and a half. I went looking for details and then found – thanks to the Walkley Award winner and indefatigable Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald – that my deceased acquaintance was in fact the person whose abuse of children triggered the police investigation in the Hunter region which in turn gave rise to the ongoing Royal Commission into child abuse.

Joanne, who’s a champion (and I’ve never met her), detailed what this now dead priest did to victims over 40 years ago. How he wrecked their lives and then admitted it to and apologised in writing to his victims.

Journalist Joanne McCarthy

I’d known the priest – Peter Brock – on and off since the 1990s. He always seemed hale and hearty in that blokey Australian way. I understood he was something of a local hero in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

In 2009, allegations of crimes Brock had allegedly committed in the 1960s and ‘70s were withdrawn. I thought that was the end of the matter – that the charges had been heard and the evidence didn’t stack up to a conviction. Then last year, his religious superior told me it wasn’t the whole story. Brock, by now – after being awarded an OAM and being welcomed back to the ministry “with considerable joy” – was offering pastoral care to the elderly in a retirement village. He would never operate as a priest again, I was told. He would never be appointed to a parish. The Superior didn’t go into detail.

I had to rely on Joanne McCarthy for those details in her powerful story. I know it beggars belief, however, so many of us within the rank and file of the clergy were oblivious.

We were blindsided by the revelations.We’re still reeling.

The first thing I wanted to do on reading the victim’s story was reach for a bucket and throw up. Then I recalled how when Peter Brock was charged by police, he denied the charges.

I was a only small cog in the wheel of the Church, but had founded and was responsible for what was our main online news service and duly reported the allegations before they got to court. I was contacted by senior clerics, told Brock would be pleading “not guilty”, that they didn’t believe the accusations anyway. He deserved the benefit of the doubt.

I was also informed of a new rule.

Such allegations were not to be reported any more. The man was entitled to his good name until convicted – only then was it to be reported. We were not to record allegations, only convictions.

I obeyed.

Now I realise that I was inadvertently complicit in the legendary process of concealment of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Again I looked for the bucket as I considered my actions to be inadvertent cooperation with a denial of natural justice – to the victims. Small cogs in a big wheel Pell and I may have been. Devoid of a vocabulary and process for addressing them, we may have also been. But, unlike some brave clerical souls who did take on the system – those who named names and called on the archbishop to do something – we didn’t.

I’m guilty as charged in ways I’ve just admitted to. And that is my dilemma and challenge. What to do now and where to go?

When I joined the Jesuits over four decades ago, it was quite different. I was attracted to the life because I had the opportunity to be a witness to and care for those who had made a difference to others’ lives. It happened in my family where “irretrievable breakdown” in my parents’ marriage had only one solution – divorce.

In the 1960s, that was absolutely taboo for Catholics of the committed kind my parents were. It only happened with the advice and encouragement of good priests who knew the real world and cared for people. And, in my experience, they weren’t uncommon. My family and most of those I knew at school and elsewhere were knockabout, ambitious and very down to earth people for whom their faith was important.

The late Catholic priest, Peter Brock

I never understood what people meant when they referred to the “Catholic guilts” because my faith never had anything to do with guilt. It was about mystery, service and self-sacrifice. It wasn’t about authority and rulebooks.

My experience over the last 30 years has been a deeply privileged one of being given the most precious thing anyone has to offer – trust. I am invited to be present at the most vulnerable and important turning points in life – from birth to death and all the hooks ups and break ups in between. I have the opportunity to assist people in stringing together their own life’s narrative with word and symbol.

It’s a mind-bending and mysterious experience for me. And I’m told from time to time that my entry into their lives has made a positive difference. But today, people looking at people like me often see something very different. They don’t see the grace I’ve received and shared.

The sense and commonsense in my experience of Catholicism has been lost and I can’t see it returning in Australia for at least a couple of generations. I believe that’s a good thing.

Away with all the humbug and hypocrisy that passed for religion; the cover-ups and deceits; the tolerance of incompetent leaders doing a very bad job; the people suffering at the hands of frauds and of clergy and others in the Church’s administration being protected by the institution’s lack of transparency and accountability.

But will the taste for mystery, the commitment to service and the practice of self-sacrifice return when the stables have been cleaned?

I look back at my life and see myriad people I’ve shared the journey with, some of whom have helped me to grow and some of whom I’ve helped to grow. I also have to believe the taste for mystery, the dedication to service and self-sacrifice will return.

Otherwise the commitment I’ve made for 43 years will have been for nothing.

And I’m not prepared to say that. Not at all.

The author, Michael Kelly, wrote this for Wendy Harmer’s ‘The Hoopla’ which is at www.thehoopla.com.au









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